Clammy hands? Trouble sleeping? Counting down the hours until Christmas day?Like many of the library staff, you might be suffering withdrawal from medical history docu-drama and all-round national treasure Downton Abbey. That’s right, folks, medical history. Those of you who’ve managed to tear themselves away from Cousin Matthew’s puppy-dog eyes will surely have noticed the show’s preoccupation with all things sickly. The first series saw Lady Crawley’s miscarriage, Mrs Patmore’s cataract surgery, Bates’ ill-corrected limp and Isobel pressurising Dr Clarkson into performing pericardiocentesis on a dropsy patient. (Editor’s note: we’re drawing a veil over Mr Pamuk and his untimely ending at the erm, hands, of Lady Mary). But it was in the second series, set during the great war, that the medical storylines really started stacking up, with everything from gas-blindness to the poisons registergetting a mention. With nine whole months to survive between Sunday’s Christmas special and the promised third series, Downton addicts will be casting around for something to feed their habit. And what better place to start than the Wellcome library?
Downton’s transformation into a convalescent home is evocatively suggested in two albums of photographs. In the series Lady Sybil trains as a VAD (voluntary aid detachment) nurse to tend to injured servicemen. Our albums come from slightly less privileged stock: Grace Mitchell was the daughter of tenant farmers in Theydon bois, Essex, and worked as a nurse during and after the war, in England and France and at casualty clearing stations in Cologne. Dorothy Waller was from a medical family – her brother Wathen was serving as a Surgeon-Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Both Grace and Dorothy took photographs during their time at the 3rd southern general hospital, which included Oxford town hall and the Oxford examination schools.
Downton’s shell-shocked Valet Mr Lang’s condition is brought to life in a 1917 film War Neuroses: Netley Hospital, which has been digitized and is available on the Wellcome Film youtube channel. The library also holds a collection of reprints of articles by Charles Samuel Myers, who coined the term “shell-shock” as well as diaries and notes made byCharles McMoran Wilson, when he was a medical officer on the Western front, which led to the publication of his The Anatomy of Courage in 1945.
The series climaxed with a perilous outbreak of Spanish flu, with Lady Grantham, faithful butler Carson, and Lavinia Swire all struck down.The 1918 medical officer of health report for Kingsclere, close to Highclere castle where Downton is filmed, reveals how closely art imitates life – the influenza outbreak there ‘increased with the cold damp September till in October and November it was of alarming frequency causing 31 deaths.’ A further 5 deaths were attributed to the resulting pneumonia, against a total of 122 for the year. A public service film and a documentary with archival footage also record the outbreak.
If all of that’s piqued your interest but you’re still too lethargic to leave the house, why spend some of your Christmas book tokens on one of these:
Dismembering the male: men’s bodies, Britain, and the Great War by Joanna Bourke
War, disability and rehabilitation in Britain: “soul of a nation” by Julie Anderson
A war of nerves by Ben Shephard
Spike Island: the memory of a military hospital by Philip Hoare
Women in the war zone by Anne Powell
As for “Patrick Crawley”’s amnesia and Matthew’s miraculously cured paralysis? We’re as stumped on those as you are…
Compiled by Wellcome library staff and written by Jo Maddocks
Tags:World War I