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Extreme traveller of the early C20th

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27/02/2012

By | From the Collections

John Fulton Barr as a young man

A small collection of papers of John Fulton Barr (1868-1954) has just been catalogued and is now available for reader use. Barr qualified in medicine at the University of Glasgow in 1891. According to the donor of the papers, after the relatively tame postgraduate enterprise of going to Paris to study ophthalmology, Barr then joined in the Klondike Gold Rush, an episode in his career sadly not covered by the diaries and other items we hold.

Early in 1900, like so many of his compatriots, he sailed from England to serve in the Boer War. This period of his life is covered by three diaries (PP/JFB/A.1/1-3) and nearly 100 black and white photographs showing a very wide variety of aspects of the life he encountered in South Africa. There are also a couple of postcards from him to a Miss Isabelle Carmichael of Kilmalcolm, Renfrewshire. These materials form a welcome addition to our already significant holdings relating to the war in South Africa, 1899-1902, a topic of continuing interest to researchers.

Following this episode, Barr went to Japan, and was involved in a business venture – a salmon cannery – on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia. Over the years he made several expeditions into this wild volcanic region. Even these days this area presents huge challenges for the traveller because of its inaccessibility and rugged terrain, although a tourism industry is developing. His surviving diary 1907-1909 describes his travels in Japan, China, and Russia and his expeditions into Kamchatka.

There are frustratingly no diaries for the period from 1909 until 1917. Thus, although Barr was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the RAMC in August 1914, we only have an account of his war service from November 1917, along with a little, mostly official, correspondence. He was discharged from service in 1919, taking a position as surgeon on one of the ships repatriating chinese labourers after the War, in order to return to Asia.

After further travels in the Far East, and also trips to North America, the Baltic and Australia, Barr returned to the UK.  According to the Medical Directory he held a few hospital medical officer posts in Scotland, before establishing himself in Unstone, Derbyshire (near Sheffield), where he continued to reside after his retirement from practice c. 1940, and to keep up his diaries. He continued to take extended periods of travel: apart from fairly frequent trips to Scotland (mainly Gelston) and a couple to Ireland, he went to South America in 1924 and South Africa in 1932, revisited Japan in 1939, and visited Sri Lanka in 1940, as well as going to Wengen, Switzerland, on  several occasions during the 1930s.

John Fulton Barr in the 1940s

There is a complete run of his diaries covering his career and travels from 1917 until 1948, although according to the British Medical Journal Barr did not die until 1954.

This collection, though small, offers considerable riches to the researcher, adding to our existing treasure-trove of unpublished travel writings as well to our extensive holdings on War, Medicine and Health, and illuminates an unusual and enterprising medical life-course.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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