#ExploreYourArchive: St George’s Archives

This week we’re celebrating Explore Your Archives, an initiative designed to showcase archives around the UK. You can follow the day using the hashtag #ExploreYourArchive as well as on St George’s archives and museum social media on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. This blogpost was written by St George’s Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi.

The history of St George’s reaches all the way back to the early 18th century. With a history tightly interwoven with that of St George’s Hospital, it is impossible to talk about the history of St George’s without talking both of the medical school (what is now the university) and the hospital.

St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner in the 18th century and in the early 20th century. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner in the 18th century and in the early 20th century. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The hospital was established at Hyde Park Corner in 1733, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that both the medical school and the hospital were relocated to Tooting. Initially located in the seemingly idyllic countryside setting of the Hyde Park, the hospital was built as a charity hospital, to serve the poorer part of the population. Difficult as it may be to imagine now, the patients came primarily from the slums of Westminster (what is sometimes known as the ‘Devil’s Acre’) and the surrounding area, and our post mortem records show for instance how the 1854 cholera epidemic in Soho resulted in a spike of deaths at the hospital.

Post mortem records, 1854 (PM/1854) showing deaths caused by cholera and a visualisation of the death rate during the epidemic, created from the data in the records using Flourish. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Post mortem records, 1854 (PM/1854) showing deaths caused by cholera and a visualisation of the death rate during the epidemic, created from the data in the records using Flourish. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Our student records are a veritable treasure trove for the history of St George’s and its alumni. From the early days, surgeons and physicians were permitted to take on pupils. The first student records date from 1752, although the medical school itself wasn’t formally established until 1834. These volumes record the attendance of medical luminaries such as Edward Jenner, who was a pupil at St George’s in the 1770s under John Hunter. Besides other well-known names, such as Henry Gray, the records continue to be a valuable source for learning more about the history of St George’s and its alumni.

‘Register of pupils and house officers, 1756-1837’ (SGHMS/4/1/18), and Edward Jenner’s entry in the pupil register, 1770. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
‘Register of pupils and house officers, 1756-1837’ (SGHMS/4/1/18), and Edward Jenner’s entry in the pupil register, 1770. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Much of the history of St George’s appears to be very white, very male, and very elite – medical education was not for everyone. Sometimes we get asked who, for instance, was the first BAME student at St George’s, which is a question we cannot, unfortunately  answer with any degree of certainty – the early student records consist mainly of only names, and although we hold some student photographs from as early as the 1860s (such as this photograph depicting the dissecting room), the records in the archives do not tell us of the ethnic origins of the students in any systematic way.

The archives can, however, reveal less well-known, but important and fascinating aspects of this history. We have highlighted, and will continue to highlight, these stories in our social media posts, from Hajee Baba, who may have been the first Muslim student at the Medical School in 1807; to Assaad Y. Kayat, a Lebanese student at St George’s in the 1840s, who studied alongside Henry Gray, and wrote a book about his life and his medical studies in England; to Henning Grenander, a Swedish figure skater and masseuse, who was a student at St George’s in 1896; to Helen Ingleby, one of the first female students at St George’s in 1915; to Kathryn Hamill Cohen, a psychoanalyst and one of the first female students at St George’s after the Second World War.

Assaad Y. Kayat, a student at St George’s in the 1840s, and Kathryn Hamill Cohen, a student at St George’s in the 1940s. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Assaad Y. Kayat, a student at St George’s in the 1840s, and Kathryn Hamill Cohen, a student at St George’s in the 1940s. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Even more importantly, we continue to collect student records so future users of the archives will perhaps look with the same awe at the records of the cohort of 2020 as we now regard the early student records – and that history will look very different from the early history of the institution.

Many and varied collections

The archives are also a home to a variety of other items that tell the story of St George’s. We have a sizeable collection of rare books, including Edward Jenner’s ‘Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae’ (1798) and John Snow’s ‘On Chloroform and Other Anaesthetics’ (1858). From the 16th to the 20th century, this collection has been accumulated by the library over the years at both Hyde Park Corner and Tooting, and is now held in the archive.

Edward Jenner, 'Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae' (1798), showing the hand of Sarah Nelmes, a dairymaid whose cowpox pustule Jenner used to vaccinate the son of his gardener, 8-year old James Phipps, demonstrating that cowpox could provide immunity from the more dangerous smallpox. Blossom, the cow in question, is still at the SGUL Library. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Edward Jenner, ‘Causes and Effects of Variolae Vaccinae’ (1798), showing the hand of Sarah Nelmes, a dairymaid whose cowpox pustule Jenner used to vaccinate the son of his gardener, 8-year old James Phipps, demonstrating that cowpox could provide immunity from the more dangerous smallpox. Blossom, the cow in question, is still at the SGUL Library. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

There are various artworks (some of the busts and paintings are featured at Art UK website) and a large photograph collection, which includes photographs relating to the school and the hospital as well as other hospitals and institutions closely associated with St George’s. These include Atkinson Morley’s, which was originally built as a convalescent home for St George’s patients (who were initially transported to Wimbledon by horse-drawn carriages). Latterly it was known for its neurological centre, with neurosurgeon Wylie McKissock at its helm. The archives also holds oral history recordings, including an interview of McKissock talking about his career and experiences at St George’s and at Atkinson Morley’s.

Staff and patients at Atkinson Morley’s, 1934; and the bust and surgical kit of Benjamin Brodie held in the archives. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Staff and patients at Atkinson Morley’s, 1934; and the bust and surgical kit of Benjamin Brodie held in the archives. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Another fascinating collection is our artefacts: from anatomical models to surgery kits, the collection tells of the fascinating history of medicine. The surgery kit displayed below, awarded to a St George’s student called Edward Walker in 1856, includes amputation knives, a trephine and bone forceps, among other items. It can be regarded with a new level of trepidation when we realise that antiseptics and anaesthesia were still being developed, which made surgery of any kind a horrifying prospect for the patient; John Snow was one of the early adopters of ether and chloroform in surgical anaesthetics at St George’s. And to demonstrate that medical advances often take their time, despite Jenner’s smallpox vaccination, smallpox was not eradicated until 1976 – and one of the items held in the archive is Professor Harold Lambert’s smallpox testing kit from the 1950s.

Surgical kit, 1856 and smallpox testing kit, 1950s. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Online and digital

We recently explored our digital futures in this blog and the links we can make to the past and to our heritage through the archives (in this case, connections between records relating to COVID-19 and influenza epidemics of 1918 and 1889).

We continue to catalogue our collections, and to make them available online via our online catalogue. Our flagship project on St George’s historical post mortem records (which you may have heard of if you’re following us at all, as we do like to talk about it!) is in full swing, with Project Archivists Natasha Shillingford and Alexandra Foulds cataloguing and making available online new volumes of post mortem cases.

Perhaps paradoxically, they give us a glimpse to the lives of those who rarely get a voice, and whether you’re interested in anatomical illustrations (some executed with some artistic flair), medical treatments (such as champagne, gin and ether or belladonna and arsenic), 19th century occupations, casual racism and prejudices exhibited by the doctors, colonial patterns of travel and immigration, mental health in the 19th century or pastry chef murderers, follow us on social media and get in touch – we’re always happy to hear from you!

Is there anything else you’d like to see or find out? Get in touch with us at archives@sgul.ac.uk or via our social media channels, and we will do our very best to answer any questions you may have.

‘Digits: For Good’: Vaccinating Harrods and Selfridges, or, (Digital) preservation of COVID-19 and influenza records

Digital Preservation Day 2020 celebrates the positive impact of digital preservation. The theme ‘Digits: For Good’ focuses this year on the creation and preservation of research and development data used in finding a vaccine for COVID-19. In this post we’ll look into the work we’ve been doing to preserve these records, and also what the archives can tell us of past pandemics. This blogpost has been written by St George’s Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi, Records Manager Kirsten Hylan and Research Data Support Manager Michelle Harricharan. You can engage with the day and find out more about our work on Twitter at @CollectionsSgul and @sgullibrary and using the hashtags #WDPD2020 and #SGULWDPD2020.

Our COVID-19 story 

At St George’s, University of London (SGUL), a specialist health and medical sciences university in South-West London, the Archivist, Research Data Support Manager, and Records Manager have joined forces to advocate for digital preservation.   

When it comes to meeting the challenge of preserving our digital materials, we have found that by bringing together staff members from different areas of the University we can utilise different skills and internal networks to achieve our goals.   

As part of the work we are undertaking around digital preservation, the team aims to collect all Covid-19 related material produced by SGUL. This includes a variety of documents in a variety of formats, produced by different parts of the university, including 

  • Communications, such as emails, web pages, FAQs, video recordings and social media. These provide evidence of our response to the crisis and our management of it – something that will be both interesting and important to keep for the future. Communications sent out to students, staff, alumni as well as those externally available will tell the story of how St George’s reacted to the pandemic 
  • Governance records, including minutes of meetings. These provide evidence of the conversations and decision-making about the responses and management of the pandemic 
  • Research, including recording the range of Covid-19 research St George’s researchers have been involved in throughout the pandemic as well as our researchers’ incredible work in the national and international media. Research data from these studies are also important to collect and preserve for the long term.

To date we are curating and preserving the items that we aware of, and we have started conversations with departments such as External Relations, Communications and Marketing to identify material we may have missed.   

We are conscious of the need to collect the full complement of Covid-19 material as ultimately this material will be an important part of our Archive in years to come and support future research.   

Looking back 

The majority of the material related to COVID-19 is digital, but that is not the case for most of the material held in the archives (although in the future that is of course likely to change!). The one pandemic most often compared to COVID-19 is the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, known most commonly (and misleadingly) as the ‘Spanish’ flu, or ‘the Grippe’. Estimates of the number of deaths caused by it vary anywhere from 17 to 100 million people worldwide

In order to understand more about the current pandemic, and our responses to it, and to learn from our past mistakes, we need to look into the past. How did St George’s, then, respond to this pandemic? Well – the answer is that we don’t really know. The minutes of the Medical School (later SGUL) committee and council make no reference to the pandemic. St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, journal produced by St George’s staff and students between 1892 and 1974, notes in February 1919 that the out-patient department and many wards at the hospital had to be closed as so many nurses were off sick, but the medical school records don’t reveal much more (although St George’s Hospital records, which are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, may hold more information). 

A photo of a paragraph in the St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, Feb 1919. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, Feb 1919. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

What we do have is historical post mortem examination records, which we are currently cataloguing and making available online. These records provide an incredible source for studying death and disease in 19th and early 20th century London. They chart, among other things, the 1854 cholera epidemic, show how prevalent tuberculosis was, and contain numerous fascinating and illuminating cases, such as that of the pastry chef murderer in 1908. 

Photo of book cover: Post mortem and case book 1846, PM/1846. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Post mortem and case book 1846, PM/1846. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

When we started cataloguing the volumes for 1918 and 1919, we were expecting to find plenty of examples of influenza, and were surprised when, well, there just weren’t that many.  

There were, of course, some cases, and many that sound troubling, such as the case of Ada Bell, a soldier’s wife aged 32, who died at St George’s 31 Oct 1918. Her illness was initially diagnosed as pneumonia, but she was brought to the hospital delirious, coughing and suffering from diarrhoea, deafness and shortness of breath. Her cause of death was deemed to be typhoid fever and influenzal bronchopneumonia. 

Scan of Post mortem case of Ada Bell, [Wife of] Soldier, 32, PM/1918/240. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Post mortem case of Ada Bell, [Wife of] Soldier, 32, PM/1918/240. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

As the symptoms were varied, cases were sometimes misdiagnosed as dengue, cholera or typhoid, for instance. Of the overall deaths in those two years at St George’s, influenza cases account for 5.5% of all the cases: the yellow line in the graph below shows cases where influenza was reported to be the cause of death (or, to be more specific, cases in which influenza is mentioned in the post mortem report). We don’t, however, have the admissions registers for the hospitals, so we cannot tell the number of cases overall, only the number of deaths. 

There is a relatively large number of ‘unknown’ causes of death during these years as well (shown in turquoise in the graph below) – these are cases for which the records enter no cause of death and no details on the medical case, and they may or may not include some further influenza cases. The graph also shows other respiratory tract diseases (in green) and digestive system diseases (in purple).  

Graph showing deaths at St George's hospital 1918-1919. Showing overall deaths, influenza, other respiratory tract diseases, digestive system diseases and unknown causes deaths.
Deaths at St George’s Hospital 1918-1919. Source: Post mortem examinations and casebooks, PM, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The 1889 influenza 

Influenza was of course not confined to these years only. Every so often influenza cases would flare up, and the previous time this happened on a large scale in 1889-90. With our propensity for blaming single countries for viruses, this pandemic is sometimes referred to as Russian flu and, according to some theories, it may have played a part in immunising those who had it against the 1918 flu, which appeared to disproportionately strike the younger population. 

There were attempts at finding medicines to cure the disease, and there was a minor scandal when the name of the teacher of materia medica (the study of drugs to treat diseases) at St George’s was found printed on an advertisement for an influenza cure: despite denying his involvement, he had to resign. The advertisement does not actually tell us what the medication consisted of, but we can only assume it did not work. 

‘Woodland affaire’, 1890. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Influenza also continued to be a concern even after the 1918-1919 pandemic had abated, and in the 1926 St George’s decided to get involved in researching vaccines for influenza. There was a public funding campaign for the project, and in February 1927, St George’s published a letter in The Times

‘following on the traditions established here by Jenner and Hunter in their historical work, we are […] engaged in special research with the object of ascertaining what causes influenza, how it can be controlled, how it can be prevented from spreading and, finally, whether a really effective treatment can be found for it’. 

Scan of article in newspaper about influenza epidemic, research at St George's Hospital. ‘Influenza epidemic: Research at St George’s Hospital’. The Times, 15 Feb 1927.
‘Influenza epidemic: Research at St George’s Hospital’. The Times, 15 Feb 1927.

The arguments found in the plea for funding sound familiar: the ‘heavy burden which this scourge places on the community by the dislocation of business and loss of working power’. Because the project was widely publicised, the public was eager to take part, and we have some wonderful letters from people writing in and suggesting their own cures and theories of the causes of influenza: we will be tweeting these, so look out for them on our Twitter feed! 

Records relating to influenza research. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The money for the research was found, and the subject of the vaccinations was chosen to be the staff of Harrods and Selfridges on Oxford Street, as well as the staff at Quin & Axtens and Bon Marché in Brixton, department stores which had recently been acquired by Selfridges. Altogether 345 people were vaccinated.  

Photo of table 1, ‘Report on anti-catarrh inoculations (catarrh of respiratory mucous membranes)’, 1928. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Table 1, ‘Report on anti-catarrh inoculations (catarrh of respiratory mucous membranes)’, 1928. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The various reports, meetings minutes and correspondence held in the archives tell us how the research subject was decided on, issues to do with the research, space and equipment (including the building of a spiral staircase in the laboratory – obviously an essential architectural refinement) and, most importantly, how the research was conducted and what the results were. 

The report of the findings in 1928 shows the research was conducted using attenuated vaccine ‘obtained from pathological fluids or secretions or from a mucous surface of persons who exhibited clinical evidence of disease’, with the assumption that the disease was called by a bacterium called Pfeiffer’s bacillus, or Haemophilus influenzae (also known as h-flu). It was not until a few years later, in 1933, that it was definitely established that influenza was actually viral, and not bacterial.  

And the results? Well, it appears that 1927 was a disappointing year when it comes to influenza, at least from the researchers’ point of view. The vaccination campaign was, however, declared a success, and there were plans to repeat it the following winter (although if that did happen, the records have not survived). 

Photo of response to ‘Report on the work carried out in the Research Laboratory’, 11 Jul 1928. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Response to ‘Report on the work carried out in the Research Laboratory’, 11 Jul 1928. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The preserved documents reveal an on-going preoccupation with and interest in influenza, even though (given what we are currently going through) there does not appear to be much sense of urgency, certainly not at the time of the 1918 influenza. 

Although the research was not successful in finding a vaccine that worked, it was an important step on the way: you won’t know what works until you try it. Our knowledge is cumulative, and dead-ends are part of research – not everything can work out, but it all adds up. The first influenza vaccine was developed in the 1940s, and (soon, hopefully) we will see a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Looking forward

What does this all have to do with digital preservation, then? Compared to the 1918 and 1889 flu pandemics the records we are creating today are largely digital. The technology supporting these records change rapidly and may one day become obsolete. If this happens, we could lose access to valuable records, including our covid-19 records. St George’s has recognised this and is actively engaged in looking after our digital information for the long term. We’ve recently purchased a digital preservation system, Preservica, to help us to preserve our digital records. We are working to develop methods and processes that will allow us to preserve the records that are currently being created, and to do so in a meaningful way that will work for colleagues across the organisation. 

Rather than thinking of digital and physical something entirely separate, we should consider them as part of a continuum, as it were. Preserving digital material can be challenging, and we can’t always replicate the processes used for paper with digital material, but the gaps in the past records show the need to preserve evidence of the current pandemic, not only for historical interest but to provide evidence of what happened and how we dealt with it. 

If you are interested in learning more about digital preservation at St George’s, or would like to get involved, please contact archives@sgul.ac.uk.