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Modern Medicine Pamphlets: QT 235 193* g79r. Wellcome Images No. L0030524.

Modern Medicine Pamphlets: QT 235 193* g79r. Wellcome Images No. L0030524.

‘At a time when money worries are front-page news,’ say the publishers of Delia Smith’s Frugal Food, ‘Britain’s most trusted cook is once again on hand with a wide range of tasty recipes that are cheap and easy to prepare.’ There is, however, a serious side to all this economy gastronomy. The link between the economy, unemployment, poverty and the nation’s health has been, and remains, one of the most ideologically contested areas of public health policy. As many of us are forced to tighten our belts financially we are simultaneously made to feel guilty for filling up on cheap, high-sugar, high-fat convenience foods and not pre-soaking our pulses or being creative with leftovers. The heightened language of moral panic over Britain’s current ‘obesity epidemic’ sells newspapers, books and TV programmes. Who is to blame? Individuals? The government? The food industry?

G.C.M. M’Gonigle (1888-1939) was Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for Stockton on Tees at the height of the inter-war economic depression.[1] His personal papers are held in the Wellcome Library and have just been catalogued (Ref. PP/GMG). M’Gonigle would have had little truck with the victim-blaming attitude that characterises much current media coverage of Britain’s poor diet. Although it was the official view of the Ministry of Health during the 1930s that it was ignorance of food values and cooking, not poverty, that resulted in poor nutrition, M’Gonigle argued that this was not only ‘untrue’ but that it also ‘cast an undeserved slur upon the capacity of the working-class housewife.’[2] For M’Gonigle, it was poverty, not ignorance, that led to malnutrition. White flour, sugar and margarine then, as now, were cheap and filling. M’Gonigle became well-known for his views, and was much in demand as a writer, commentator and broadcaster.

He has also been name-checked by historians who have debated whether the 1930s were ‘healthy’ or ‘hungry’ and whether the medical profession responded adequately to the economic crisis. Charles Webster cited M’Gonigle’s relationship with the Ministry of Health as an example of the harassment meted out to individual MOHs who were at variance with the Ministry line. [3] For Jane Lewis, M’Gonigle was one of the very few MOHs who proved immediately receptive to the ideas of social medicine and his attitudes were ‘far in advance’ of the vast majority of his colleagues.[4]

The 18 boxes of M’Gonigle’s papers that are now available will, for the first time, allow researchers to examine the man and his views in more depth. They contain a series of correspondence and subject files, including several that cast light on his relationship with the Ministry of Health; published and unpublished writings and press-cuttings. In addition to M’Gonigle’s views on nutrition, the papers contain useful material on a number of other inter-war public health issues, including maternity and child welfare, school health, housing and birth control. They include, for example, M’Gonigle’s personal set of papers of the Inter-departmental Committee on Abortion (the Birkett Committee).

Those bored with Delia’s ‘poor man’s cassoulet’ (which she recommends making with a well-known brand of rather pricey organic sausages, by the way) may also find inspiration in Family Meals and Catering, a controvesial leaflet of recipes produced in 1935 by the BMA’s Nutrition Committee, of which M’Gonigle was an active member. ‘Minced meat roly’ followed by ‘rusks and jam’, anyone? [5]

[1] For more biographical information see Susan McLaurin, ‘M’Gonigle, George Cuthbert Mura (1889–1939),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) [available by subscription at].
[2] G.C.M. M’Gonigle, Nutrition: the position in England to-day (London: Industrial Christian Fellowship, 1936), p.10. (Wellcome Library: PP/GMG/E/14).
[3] Charles Webster, ‘Healthy or hungry thirties?’, History Workshop Journal (1982, vol. 13, no. 1) p.112.
[4] Jane Lewis, What Price Community Medicine?: the philosophy, practice, and politics of public health since 1919 (Brighton : Wheatsheaf, 1986), p.33.
[5] File on the ‘BMA Nutrition Committee’ (Wellcome Library: PP/GMG/B/17); see also related records of the BMA (Wellcome Library: SA/BMA/G.44-53; SA/BMA/G.54-55).

Author: Jennifer Haynes

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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