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Archives are the raw material of history: where a published source will typically give you an overview, archives plunge you into the day-to-day detail of the past.  It is from this detail that history synthesises its grand pictures: there is no point making a sweeping statement about what people did or said at a given time unless this can be backed up by specific examples.  Archive material gives you those specifics, the detailed nitty-gritty of how events unfolded, day by day or in some cases hour by hour.


The German Hospital, Dalston: patients in the waiting room, from Wellcome Images.

Because they’re rooted in specifics, archives can be very vivid, transporting right back into the events of some particular day in the past.  But by the same token they can also deliver confidential, distressing or embarrassing details of named individuals, something that applies particularly in an institution like the Wellcome Library that deals in medical information.  An individual’s medical history is one of the aspects of their life that the UK’s Data Protection Act singles out for special protection.

As a result, like most archives we hold material that is closed for particular periods, until the parties involved are dead and the chances of distress or damage from the information have dwindled away.  Every January, another tranche of material reaches the end of its closure period and is reviewed (in some cases the closure period was set before the Data Protection Act came into being and we need to check that the material could still be made available under the new legislation); all being well it is then released for public use.

January 2013’s batch is now ready for study.  Patient records bulk large: six official ledgers from Ticehurst House Hospital, the private mental hospital in Sussex of which we hold extensive archives, plus some informal patient notes from the German Hospital in London, compiled by Frederick Parkes Weber as shedding light on particular symptoms or conditions.  As ever, they take one straight into the patients’ vivid and often distressing stories.  Parkes Weber, for example, relates the story of a young woman of 24 who killed herself in November 1896 by drinking hydrochloric acid.  She had had a baby some weeks before and was apparently suffering from post-natal depression:  “She had bought the spirits of salts, she said, to clean something, but feeling so despondent and wretched she took the whole to kill herself.”  Suffering from terrible abdominal pain, “she prayed to see her husband and an aunt” before dying in the hospital.  There is no mention of her asking to see her new daughter, and a little further on in his notes Parkes Weber records that not long after birth “The child was taken away from her mother (milk disagreed or some such cause was alleged, but could there have been a fear that the mother might in some strange mood kill her child?).” (PP/FPW/A.2/3)

Ticehurst House Hospital c.1900, from MS.8591

Meanwhile in Ticehurst, a parade of mental health issues passes: some flamboyant, some depressed, some suffering from dementia; some recovering, others staying in the hospital for decades.  MSS.6401-6404 and 6406 cover patients’ medical notes up to 1912, whilst MS.6610 records the financial aspect of patients’ treatment, often the same ones, in the same years.  Opening one at random, on p.166 of MS.6403 we find a middle-aged man who is admitted “depressed and morbidly suspicious…. He admitted that he had asked his wife to search the house on the previous night as he feared there was a detective hiding in it.”  In addition, he felt the medicine he had taken recently left “his brain… deadened, and his testicles felt dead.” Several pages chart his state of mind – “still very emotional, often will burst out crying when in conversation” (p.172) but after eight pages he is discharged recovered.  No such happy outcome awaits another middle-aged man a few pages later, recorded as obsessed with collecting facts about sporting matters and given to occasional “foolish remarks such as ‘How can I come down to breakfast if I have no feet?’” (p.180) – the ledger reports his declining health and eventually that he was “moribund – there was a copious flow of bile-stained fluid, just before death, which took place at 1:40pm.” (p.184)

Elsewhere in the new records, we find papers of the Ministry of Health officials James Randal Hutchinson (c. 1880-1955) and William Henry Bradley (1898-1975): three files newly opened document their investigations of deaths from jaundice following measles vaccination, including several children at the Royal Eastern Counties Institution for Mental Defectives in Colchester. (PP/JRH/C.2)  A ledger created by the Mental After Care Association records, tersely, how the association assessed whether it could help patients leaving mental hospitals – “Advice given”, “Not a case we could help.  To apply to Guardians [of the Poor]”, “Placed in Service” and, sadly, “Relapsed”.  (SA/MAC/G.2/7)  And in the papers of Donald Hunter, we find files on hyperparathyroidism and bronchiectasis, in each case with detail drawn from individual cases (PP/HUN/C/1/41 and PP/HUN/C/2/30).

Elsewhere in the newly open materials, we find two volumes of the Queen’s Roll, in which the Queen’s Nursing Institute recorded the qualification and periodic inspection of its nurses (SA/QNI/J.3/36 and SA/QNI/J.3/37) – a resource that has proved of considerable interest to family historians – and several files on applicants for the Beit Memorial Fellowship, among others.  The full list of this year’s openings is below.  Readers are, as ever, invited to come and immerse themselves in these detailed depictions of lives a century ago.

Material opened January 2013 (see archives catalogue for details):

Ticehurst House Hospital

MS.6401: Case records 1899-1912.

MS.6402: Case records 1899-1912.

MS.6403: Case records 1901-1912.

MS.6404: Case records 1901-1912.

MS.6406: Case records 1905-1912.

MS.6610: Patients’ account book: maintenance fees and payments received

Charles McMoran Wilson, Baron Moran (1882-1977)

PP/CMW/D.1/4: Agendas and minutes, including papers for first meeting of new committee, 28 Oct 1952

Frederick Parkes Weber (1863-1962)

PP/FPW/A.2/3: German Hospital, Dalston: case notes, cuttings, articles, notes, lab reports, photos, correspondence, later cases of relevance, etc.

Air Marshal Sir Harold E. Whittingham (1887-1983)

PP/HEW/A.1/2: Carcinoma patients: photographs of tumours. (34 b/w and sepia photographs)

Donald Hunter (1898-1977)

PP/HUN/C/1/41: Hyperparathyroidism

PP/HUN/C/2/30: Bronchiectasis

James Randal Hutchinson (c. 1880-1955) and William Henry Bradley (1898-1975)

PP/JRH/A/77: Immunisation Accidents:22. Rifleman T.J.B., 2nd Bn Royal Ulster Rifles. Death following innoculation of TAB 1937 (ref official file 2323/4701)

PP/JRH/A/79: Immunisation Accidents: 24. Dartford. Case of J-D-C-, M6. Death, anaphylaxis following injection of serum for scarlet fever

PP/JRH/C/2: Measles serum jaundice – Colchester outbreak

Beit Memorial Fellowships for Medical Research Trust

SA/BMF/A.2/116: Quastel, Juda Hirsch

SA/BMF/A.2/117: Clutterbuck, Percival Walter

SA/BMF/A.2/118: Mathews, Bryan Harold Cabot

SA/BMF/A.2/119: McCullagh, Douglas Roy

SA/BMF/A.2/120: Ackroyd, Wallace Ruddell

Mental After Care Association

SA/MAC/G.2/7: Case Agenda Books

Nation’s Fund for Nurses

SA/NFN/B/5/1: Tribute Fund Committee (Relief Committee from Jun 1930)

Population Investigation Committee

SA/PIC/M/3/2: ICERD – C. Langford.  Letters and application relating to funding from ICERD for research on birth control practice in Britain.

Queen’s Nursing Institute

SA/QNI/J.3/36: The Queen’s Roll: 8551-8800

SA/QNI/J.3/37: The Queen’s Roll: 8801-9050

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

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

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