Vital Mental Medicine

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A BBC Radio 4 documentary which aired today, Vital Mental Medicine: Shackleton’s Banjo, offers an indirect insight into an aspect of Henry Wellcome’s life.

The documentary tells the story of the instrument shown above: a banjo belonging to Leonard Hussey, a meteorologist who was part of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition expedition party which set out on board the Endurance in 1914. Famously, the Endurance became stuck in pack ice forcing Shackleton and five crew members to sail the 1,300 km to South Georgia in a small boat in an attempt to get help. He left behind twenty-two men: one of whom was Hussey.

As the Endurance was sinking, Shackleton allowed each crew member to take 2 lbs of possessions with them. The only exception to this was Hussey’s banjo – which Shackleton himself retrieved. “We must have that banjo”, Shackleton was reported to have said, “It’s vital mental medicine”.

Miraculously, Shackleton made it to South Georgia and all the stranded men were eventually rescued. Their signatures adorn Hussey’s banjo (now owned by the National Maritime Museum and currently on display in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall) which he played to the other twenty-one men he was stranded with.

As for the Wellcome connection… we move from the ice of Antarctica to the sun of the Sudan, as it was there that Hussey first saw the newspaper advertisement calling for volunteers for Shackleton’s expedition. And the reason Hussey was in the Sudan? He was working on Henry Wellcome’s archaeological excavations at Gebel Moya in the north of that country, during the winter of 1913-1914.

Between 1911 and 1914, Henry Wellcome funded excavations at Gebel Moya, south of Khartoum. Both a continuation of Henry Wellcome’s charitable work in the Sudan and a practical example of his interest in archaeology, the excavations were a major contribution to the knowledge of the early history of Eastern Africa. They also featured an ingenious use of aerial photography – a development which these excavations have seldom been credited with. (Life at Gebel Moya during the 1912-1913 season was captured on a film now digitised as part of our Wellcome Film project).

It appears that Hussey’s time with Wellcome at Gebel Moya was a major formative influence. Amongst the personal papers we hold of Wellcome’s, we have correspondence between him and Hussey. Hussey, in a letter dated 21st August 1918, writes that:

“I don’t think that we all quite realised the immense value of the training in discipline and especially in loyalty, which we had at Gebel Moya. Sir Ernest Shackleton – and I say this with all diffidence – always refers to me as “one of the most cheerful and loyal ones”, and I wish for no finer epigraph”. [1]

For more on Hussey’s cheerfulness – and how his banjo kept spirits up amongst his fellow strandees – have a listen to the documentary, which is available through the BBC iPlayer to listeners in the UK until next Saturday (18th December).

Image credit: National Maritime Museum

[1] From file WA/HMM/CO/Ear/316. The letter also makes brief mention of Hussey and Shackleton about to embark on a “wartime mission in Northern Russia”.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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