Dr Angela Cassidy shares some of the challenges of being an historian of the recent past.
How to make sense of the recent past? At what point does an issue or event stop being part of today’s social fabric and become part of our collective memory, and how then do those memories become this thing we call ‘history’?
As an historian, this can be a strange no-man’s land to work in: as well as archives being rather thin on the ground, memories are partial and questions of “what actually happened?” can be heavily contested, often in the name of today’s agendas. This is the space I’ve been navigating as a Wellcome Research Fellow, investigating and writing the history of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in the UK since the late 1960s. While today’s controversy over bTB and whether to cull wild badgers to manage the disease in cattle is now high profile, politically difficult, and Not Going Away, it’s actually the latest round of a longer history of public and policy debate, starting with the discovery of sick badgers in Gloucestershire in the early 1970s.
While there is a thriving social science literature addressing bovine TB today, existing histories of the disease tend to focus on the late 19th to early 20th century, going up to the 1950s at best. My work is a first effort at comprehensively mapping this terrain, but I certainly don’t expect it to be the final word! Given my research background in science communication and engagement, it seemed sensible to start by asking the people who’ve been involved with bTB and/or badgers since the 1970s what they know. This amazing resource is something which most historians can’t access, so I’m drawing upon and collating their memories alongside media coverage, policy reports and of the scientific and veterinary literature from the time. Using oral history techniques also helps me do this work as public history, working in collaboration with those who were there at the time.
For over 20 years, the History of Modern Biomedicine research group have run Witness Seminars in which they bring together key participants in scientific debates of the past, and invite them to talk about their work. The idea is similar to a focus group – insights and memories get drawn out of conversation in ways that don’t tend to happen in a one to one interview – but is more formal, and the transcribed discussion is annotated and becomes part of the public record. I was incredibly pleased when they agreed to my suggestion of running a Witness Seminar on bTB in the UK. The seminar, which took place in May 2014, has just been published, and is a significant contribution to the evidence base on the history of bTB.
So what can we learn from this resource? There’s a lot there to analyse, but even on a preliminary reading some things stand out. It seems that initially all those concerned – veterinarians, policymakers, farmers, scientists and wildlife campaigners – were united by the common purpose of trying to understand what the connection was between badgers and TB, and to find a solution. This appears to have gradually broken down, partly as they learned more (and disagreed more), but also as channels for direct dialogue disappeared. The endless search for ‘independent experts’ (and the paradoxes that this can produce) was also a recurring theme. Other issues emerge when comparing the bovine TB Witness Seminar with a previous seminar on foot and mouth disease – most strikingly the emotional impacts of animal disease on the people who must act to prevent the spread of infection. More subtly, both groups referred to long-term changes within the Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF, now Defra), where locally based structures for animal disease management have weakened over time, potentially contributing to a loss of trust between local communities and London-based policymakers.
Finally, given how notoriously acrimonious these debates have been, the fact that the participants were able to sit down together and have a respectful, lively and enquiring conversation is testament not only to their personal qualities and ongoing commitment to their subject, but also the power of the Witness Seminar as a unique method for finding out about the recent past. I’m honoured to have been a part of that conversation, and hope that it may continue into the future.
Author: Dr Angela Cassidy is a contemporary historian of science and medicine, and Wellcome Research Fellow at the Department of History, King’s College London.