#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.

Former students of St George’s: Kathryn Hamill Cohen (1905-1960)

To welcome new and old students to St George’s, our Archive team will be exploring the stories of some of our alumni. Today’s post comes from Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi.

‘Death of a Ziegfeld girl’, The Daily Mail, 5 Jan 1960. Source: Patricia Highsmith Papers, Swiss Literary Archives.
‘Death of a Ziegfeld girl’, The Daily Mail, 5 Jan 1960. Source: Patricia Highsmith Papers, Swiss Literary Archives.

Newspaper headlines in 1960 made much of the death of Kathryn Hamill Cohen. Portrayed looking elegant and glamorous, newspaper reports could hardly contain themselves – the story, after all, seemed to have it all: suicide of a Chelsea doctor, psychoanalyst and a Broadway dancer. She was also a lover of Patricia Highsmith. But who was she, and what was her connection to St George’s?

Kathryn Hamill Cohen was one of the first female students to enter the Medical School when St George’s again admitted women in 1945, for the first time since the First World War. There had been considerable resistance to the idea of female students, and it was only in 1915 that first female students were admitted to St George’s. Even then, their time was limited, and after the war the doors of the medical school were again closed to women.

University of London, Report of Special Committee on Medical Education of Women, 1944. Medical School Committee Minutes, Vol 26, SGHMS/1/1/1/29, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
University of London, Report of Special Committee on Medical Education of Women, 1944. Medical School Committee Minutes, Vol 26, SGHMS/1/1/1/29, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The minutes of the Medical School show that co-education (that is, women and men studying together) was a hotly debated subject between the wars, and St George’s also received petitions and requests to allow women to continue studying alongside men. Progress was, however, slow, and so it was not until 1944 that a report by the London universities found that, in fact, patients (astonishingly) did not mind being examined by female students, and since opposition to co-education appeared to be diminishing and many universities were already admitting women, the remaining argument against allowing female students appeared to be that ‘the Schools for men are loath to lose their traditions which have been built up by generations of male students’.

Student register 1945 showing the first female students at St George’s since the First World War. SGHMS/4/1/18, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Student register 1945 showing the first female students at St George’s since the First World War. SGHMS/4/1/18, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

And so Cohen was admitted to study at St George’s alongside with four other women in 1945: Ruth Clare Cornford (Chapman), Patience Proby, Adrien Patricia Dunlop and Zaïda Megrah (Hall / Ramsbotham). Being one of so few women must have been hard – even the student records had everything printed as ‘Mr’ as default, as Cohen’s attendance card for anaesthetics shows below. Furthermore, while the other women were in their early 20s, Cohen was 40 when she began her studies at St George’s. Her outlook on life and on her studies must have differed considerably from that of her fellow students.

Attendance card from the Department of Anaesthetics. Student index cards A-C, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Attendance card from the Department of Anaesthetics. Student index cards A-C, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Prior to her medical studies, she had led an eventful life. Born in New York in 1905, she had worked as a dancer at Broadway with the Ziegfeld Follies, who were hugely successful, glitzy revue performers with elaborate choreographies.

In 1930 she moved to the UK; her arrival is recorded on a passenger list from New York to Plymouth on 30 Dec 1930. She was 25 years old, and her occupation on this list is given as actress. Later that year she married Dennis Cohen, a publisher at the Cresset Press, who may have been an MI6 officer, and who was also involved in organising Kindertransport from Germany during the war. They eventually moved to Chelsea, where they had commissioned an avant-garde house still known as the ‘Cohen house’.

Image of the so-called Cohen House at 64 Church Street, Chelsea. ©Gillfoto [aka Kenneth John Gill] CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image of the so-called Cohen House at 64 Church Street, Chelsea. ©Gillfoto [aka Kenneth John Gill] CC BY-SA 3.0.

At some point prior to 1945 Cohen worked as a secretary to Nye Bevan, who in 1948 went on to establish the NHS: perhaps this work prompted her to consider medical studies, rather than politics. Between 1941 and 1944 she was a student at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. She enrolled as a student at St George’s in September 1945, a week after the official end of Second World War 2 September 1945.

Student photograph of Cohen, Kathryn Hamill, 1945. Student index cards A-C, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Student photograph of Cohen, Kathryn Hamill, 1945. Student index cards A-C, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

After graduating from the medical school in 1948, her student records show that she worked as house officer and registrar at St George’s Hospital for several years (and even in her student photograph she looks glamorous). Later she was employed as psychoanalyst at the hospital and appears to have practiced psychiatry from her home office. She was also interested in genetics, and published on the use of hypnosis in treating skin diseases. Although psychoanalysis may now have a dubitable reputation, it was a respected field of study at the time. 

During this time she met the author Patricia Highsmith at a party in New York. The two had an affair in 1949: “Kathryn was beautiful, intelligent, melancholy, monied, and married: a combination Pat always found irresistible”. Highsmith asked Cohen to accompany her on a trip to Italy, although the affair does not appear to have continued after that.

It was this connection to Highsmith that made Cohen famous, as she was a partial inspiration for Highsmith’s novel ‘The Price of Salt’ (later republished as ‘Carol’ and made into a film in 2015), a departure from her usual psychological thrillers in that it was a romance – and a lesbian romance at that, which in the 1950s was somewhat scandalous. Dennis Cohen’s publishing house (for which Cohen worked for as a co-director) published several of Highsmith’s books, including ‘Strangers on a Train’, which Alfred Hitchcock made into a film.

Cate Blanchett as Carol in the 2015 film. Source: The Playlist.
Cate Blanchett as Carol in the 2015 film. Source: The Playlist.

Her life, however, had a tragic end: in 1960 Cohen took her own life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. In a further (if morbid) connection to St George’s, her post mortem was performed by Donald Teare, pathologist at St George’s, and also a former student of St George’s.


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St George’s Archives – The Pastry Chef Murderer

Opening Up the Body’ is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The comprehensive reports contained within these volumes reveal some fascinating stories, which we’ll be sharing with you via the Library blog. Today’s post comes from Natasha Shillingford, Project Archivist.

On 27th July 1908 a patient called Ferdinand Alletrie was admitted to St George’s Hospital with a stab wound in the left chest which was penetrating the heart. The medical case notes say that ‘He was a waiter at the Bath Club. He had quarrelled with a colleague who waited for him outside and stabbed him in the chest.’ On admission he was observed to be in articulo mortis, or at the point of death. There was a stab wound in the third left intercostal space just to the left of the sternum. His clothes were noted to be soaked in blood. Ferdinand died five minutes after his admission.

Post Mortem Case Book 1908 (Ferdinand Alletrie, PM/1908/221)

The morbid appearances listed during the post mortem examination note that on the left side of the chest in the third interspace was a ‘punctured wound pointed at either end and gaping in the middle. It measured 1” long and ½” wide in the middle.’ The Post Mortem includes an illustration of the murder weapon as shown below.

Post Mortem Case Book 1908 (Ferdinand Alletrie, PM/1908/221)

But what led to the death of Ferdinand at St George’s Hospital? A search through historic newspapers uncovered an article called ‘Foreigners’ Fight at the Bath Club’ in the Leicester Daily Post dated 1st August 1908. The article details the tragic events that took place at the Bath Club that evening as well as the resulting inquest at Westminster Coroner’s Court ‘on the body of a cook named Pierre Auguste Ferdinand Alletree, employed at the Bath Club, who died from the effects of a wound said to have been inflicted by another employee of the club, who was in consequences arrested.’ The accused man was named as Georges Backenstrass.

Pierre Souleyne, chef at the Bath Club, said that he had engaged Alletree as sauce cook at the beginning of June, and later employed Backenstrass as a pastry chef at the club. One evening Backenstrass approached the chef and said ‘Chef. I am very sorry. I want to leave at the end of the week.’ When asked why he wanted to leave, he said that he was not friendly with the sauce chef. Souleyne said to him, ‘You have nothing to do with the sauce cook, and he has nothing to do with you. You must work friendly together.’ The chef also spoke to the sauce cook, no doubt to diffuse the situation, and Alletree responded, ‘You know me. He is silly. Don’t take any notice of him.’ No doubt the chef thought the issue was resolved, but he soon received news that the two chefs were fighting.

Louis Ayrand, another sauce cook, gave evidence as to the relationship between the two chefs. He said that Backenstrass ‘was a quiet and reserved man. He had some malady, and for that reason he was avoided by the other men.’ He said that ‘we never ate any of his pastry’, because of this unnamed illness. Continuing, the witness said that Backenstrass and Alletree did not agree about their work, and they had previously quarrelled when Backenstrass would not send up the sauce. On the night of the murder Ayrand heard the two chefs quarrelling in the vegetable pantry, and they decided to settle matters outside in Berkeley Street. Soon another chef by the name of Griffin called out ‘The pastry cook has stabbed your chef.’ Soon after Alletree ran back to the club, his hand over his heart, pointed to the pastry chef and said ‘Arrest him, he has stabbed me with a knife.’

Griffin, a vegetable cook at the Bath Club, said that he had quarrelled with Backenstrass the same night, when he took a biscuit off the pastry chef’s plate and Backenstrass objected. Alletree then began arguing with Backenstrass, and the latter said ‘I will wait for you outside.’ Griffin followed the two men outside and saw Alletree put his hand to Backenstrass’ neck and push him back. Backenstrass retaliated by hitting Alletree in the chest with something, after which the sauce chef exclaimed ‘he has stabbed me.’

Another chef stated that he saw the cook with a knife after the quarrel and said to him ‘You ought not to use a knife when you have quarrelled.’ Backenstrass replied ‘Well, there are two waiting for me downstairs.’

When Backenstrass was taken to Marlborough Street Police Station he made a statement in which he said that the sauce cook had called him a sneak for talking to the chef about him, and that the sauce chef and Griffin had approached him in the pantry, the latter threatening to break his nose. Describing the affair in the street, Backenstrass said ‘I took my knife out of my right trousers pocket and struck him in the chest. The knife is very sharp. It is the one I used for pastry. I never carried it before that night. I took it because of the pastry cook and the vegetable cook. If they had left me alone this would not have happened. The sauce cook told me I had too many pans in the fire. He told me I ate too much and he would come and watch me out. I asked him several times to leave me alone, and he would not.’

Backenstrass was held at Brixton Prison prior to the inquest. However the Governor of the prison informed the Coroner that Backenstrass had committed suicide in prison by hanging himself in his cell. The Coroner pointed out to the Jury that although Alletree had started the quarrel, if Backenstrass was still alive they would have to commit him on the capital charge. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against Backenstrass.

A further search of the historic newspapers revealed the article ‘The Bath Club Tragedy. The Brixton Prison Suicide’ in the Faringdon Advertiser and Vale of the White Horse, 8th August 1908. The article discusses the inquest into the death of Backenstrass. A medical officer testified that the prisoner, apparently a German, had suffered from a nervous affection. There were marks of two wounds of an operation in the abdomen, ‘but the man was in fairly good health, and behaved himself quite rationally, though he shewed that he was naturally worried about the crime.’ On the prisoner’s slate was found words written to the effect that ‘he had not been in good health, that he felt the disgrace, that his conscience was quite clear, and that he was guiltless of the offence with which he was charged.’ The jury returned a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind.


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Former students of St George’s: Assaad Y. Kayat (1843-1846)

To welcome new and old students to St George’s, our Archive team will be exploring the stories of some of our alumni. Today’s post comes from Archivist Juulia Ahvensalmi.

Image of Assaad Y. Kayat
Image of Assaad Y. Kayat. Source: ‘A Voice from Lebanon with the Life and Travels of Assaad Y. Kayat’ (1847).

Going through student records recently in the archives, I came across the name Assaad y Kayat in the list of students enrolled at St George’s in 1843. There was not much information in this list: his student number was 4093, he had attended the medical school for three seasons and he ‘appears not to have paid his fees’. His name stood out from the list of predominantly British names (the students at St George’s were until relatively recently primarily white, middle or upper class and male – you can read about our first female students in 1915 here), but the brief description was also intriguing. Who was Assaad, where did he come from and what happened to him?

As luck would have it, it turns out that Assaad, helpfully for us, published a book with his life story. He spelled his name As’ad Yakub Khayyat or Assaad Y. Kayat, and the book he wrote was called ‘A Voice from Lebanon, with the Life and Travels of Assaad Y. Kayat’. It was originally published by Madden & Co on Leadenhall Street, London, in 1847, and the front page includes a (rather dashing) portrait of him (see above).

The book appears to have been written specifically for a British audience. He had spent time in England on three occasions: it was on his third trip that he became a student at St George’s. At the age of 32 when he began his studies, he would have been considerably older than most of his fellow students – Henry Gray, for instance, was only 16 when he began his studies the previous year. Assaad was also married and had two small children, and had to earn money to cover his studies, so he presumably did not have much time for student activities. In his book, however, he only has words of praise for his time as a student:

‘I … entered as a medical student at St George’s Hospital … I shall be for ever indebted to them for the instruction I have received from their high skill. It is indeed a glorious hospital, an exalted medical school; it is an honour to be taught at it’

Signature of Assaad Y. Kayat in the St George’s Hospital Medical School Register 1836-1902.
Signature of Assaad Y. Kayat in the St George’s Hospital Medical School Register 1836-1902. Archives and Special Collections of St George’s, University of London

Life and travels of Assaad Y. Kayat

Born in 1811 in Beirut, Assaad describes in vivid detail his childhood and upbringing, through epidemics, wars and revolutions. He learns to read and write at the age of four, first in Arabic, his mother tongue, as his father wants to give him a good education (‘from the fear of my growing to manhood in a state of wretchedness and oppression’). Showing great promise and inclination for learning languages (he subsequently learns both ancient and modern Greek, Italian, English and Persian) as well as an astute business sense, Assaad soon progresses from selling rag papers to interpreting for sailors and merchants and is eventually employed as an interpreter by the British consul and representative of the East India Company in Syria. He travels widely around Middle East and Europe. Keeping in mind his audience, there is a lot of name-dropping of British dignitaries, officials and other people he meets on the way – his skills at networking are clearly second to none.

Although his focus is on Christian missionary activities, his account comes across as strikingly liberal for its time: he talks of ‘native agency’ and the importance of having native teachers and preachers, as well as of learning local languages and customs. He is a keen advocate of education, and in particular women’s education and equality.

Medical education

Throughout the account, he emphasises his journey to become a doctor ‘in order to benefit my fellow creatures’. On his second visit to England in the later 1830s, he attends some medical lectures at Cambridge, as well as at St George’s, where his first connection appears to have been the hospital chaplain, Rev William Niven. He regards medical education as an essential:

‘It requires no miracle to heal, but only to attend a medical course for a diploma or degree. A dose or two of sulphate of quinine often cures your patient of ague; vaccination prevents his taking the small-pox; the use of certain precautions prevents your catching the plague.’

In 1843 he returns to England, accompanied by his wife and toddler, as well as a group of young men with the view of obtaining an education for them, and to study medicine at St George’s. It is not all plain sailing, however, His wife Martha struggles to settle in; she has a toddler and a small baby to care for, she is sick herself, cannot get used to the miserable weather and the famous London fogs (or smogs caused by pollution in the dirty and overcrowded city), she doesn’t speak English and is largely confined to their small rented rooms, instead of their lovely house and garden and the company of her family and friends in Beirut (so despite his advocacy for women’s education, his own wife is stuck with a very traditional role at home). They are struggling with money; the committee (‘Committee of the Syrian Society’) Assaad had set up to enable the education for his ‘Syrian youths’ is slow to help, and Assaad attempts to raise money by giving public lectures on Syria and Christianity and by setting up a small importing and exporting business.

He is also keenly aware of his status as an immigrant in Britain and encounters prejudices and racism. He cites a journalist, who ‘came to my lectures twice, and all she could observe was my handsome appearance – her ears tickled by my foreign accent’ and talks at length about the difficulties in trying to expel these prejudices:

‘Some take me for a prince, or at least a chief; others, for a Chinese ambassador, a merchant, or an interpreter. Some think I am a Jew; others, a Turk, a missionary, a philosopher, or a lecturer; Christians of every denomination appointing to me a station or an office according to their own preconceived notions.’

Entry for Assaad Y Kayat (student number 4093). St George’s student records Vol 5. SGHMS/4/1/7.
Entry for Assaad Y Kayat (student number 4093). St George’s student records Vol 5. SGHMS/4/1/7. Archives and Special Collections of St George’s, University of London.

The student records show that Assaad studied for three seasons. One of the records notes that he ‘appears not to have paid his fees’, but according to his own account he finishes his studies in 1846, obtains his diploma and is admitted as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, before returning to Beirut. It is unclear which account is true; maybe some more research in the archives will shed more light on the matter.


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St George’s Archives – View of the Dissecting Room of St George’s Hospital

Opening Up the Body’ is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The comprehensive reports contained within these volumes reveal some fascinating stories, which we’ll be sharing with you via the Library blog. Today’s post comes from Natasha Shillingford, Project Archivist.

View of the Dissecting Room of St George’s Hospital, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

“At the time of which I am writing, between the years 1858 and 1860, Mr Pollock and Mr Gray were Lecturers on Anatomy, Mr Athol Johnstone was Lecturer on Physiology, and Dr Noad, Lecturer on Chemistry; whilst Dr Dickinson and Dr Hastings were Demonstrators of Anatomy. All these appear in the photograph.”

‘The Men of my Time’, St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, No. 3, Vol 1

George Pollock

Painting of George Pollock
Photo credit: St George’s, University of London

George David Pollock was born in India in 1817, the son of Field-Marshall Sir George Pollock and his wife Frances Webbe. Pollock was sent to England as a child and later apprenticed to a country practitioner. He then entered St George’s Hospital and became House Surgeon to Sir Benjamin Brodie. Due to Brodie’s influence, Pollock in 1843 gained the post of Resident Physician to Lord Metcalfe, Governor-General of Canada. Following Lord Metcalfe’s death, Pollock returned to England and in 1846 he was elected Assistant Surgeon to St George’s Hospital, where he served for thirty four years until his retirement in 1880

In 1869, the Swiss surgeon Jacques-Louis Reverdin developed a successful method for the allograft of human skin. Based upon Reverdin’s work, Pollock performed the first such successful operation in England in May 1870. This technique was known as the Pollock Graft and was adopted by many surgeons.

Pollock took over the care of ophthalmic cases at St George’s. He was also Demonstrator of Anatomy under Prescott Gardner Hewett, and succeeded him as Lecturer on Anatomy. In the Ophthalmic Department at St George’s Hospital, he was known for his cataract operations which led to his private practice in eye diseases. He was also appointed Surgeon on the founding of the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street and took great interest in cleft palate operations.

Pollock also served as Examiner in Surgery to the Indian Medical Service where he was said to be a popular member of the teaching staff. He was also President of the Association of Fellows and headed a reform party at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was President of the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1886, and of the Pathological Society in 1875, and also Surgeon in Ordinary to the Prince of Wales.

He practiced at 36 Grosvenor Street until the last year of his life, when he moved to 35 Chester Square. He married Marianne, daughter of Robert Saunders, in 1850 by whom he had five children, three surviving him. He died on 14th February 1897 after a short illness of pneumonia.

Henry Gray

Image of Henry Gray
Copyright expired. CC BY 4.0

Henry Gray was born in 1827, the son of a Private Messenger to George IV and William IV. He entered St George’s Hospital on 6th May 1845 and he soon focussed his attention on the study of anatomy. In 1848, at the age of 21, he was awarded the Triennial Prize of the Royal College of Surgeons for his essay on ‘The Origin, Connection and Distribution of the Nerves of the Human Eye and its Appendages, illustrated by Comparative Dissections of the Eye in other Vertebrate Animals’. As a student he was described as a painstaking and methodical worker who learned anatomy by undertaking dissections himself.

In 1850 Gray was appointed House Surgeon under Robert Keate, Caesar Hawkins, Edward Cutler and Thomas Turner. On 3rd June 1852 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a rare distinction at the age of 25. Gray devoted himself to the study of anatomy and the first edition of his ‘Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical’ was published in 1858, with engravings by Dr Henry Vandyke Carter. The book, known as ‘Gray’s Anatomy’, had reached the 23rd edition by 1928.

In 1861, Gray became a candidate for the post of Assistant Surgeon at St George’s Hospital. His election was viewed to be certain, but he contracted smallpox while looking after a nephew with the disease, and died after a short illness on 13th June 1861. Upon his death, Sir Benjamin Brodie wrote ‘I am most grieved about poor Gray. His death, just as he was on the point of realizing the reward of his labours, is a sad event indeed…Gray is a great loss to the Hospital and the School. Who is there to take his place?’

Athol Archibald Wood Johnstone

Post Mortem examination book 1844 (Anne Thompson, PM/1844/64) Archive and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

Athol Archibald Wood Johnstone was born in 1820, the youngest son of Dr James Johnson, Physician to King William IV, whose name was accidentally spelt Johnson instead of Johnstone. Athol Johnstone reverted to the original family name on the death of his father.

He studied at St George’s Hospital, where he became House Surgeon, Demonstrator of Anatomy and Lecturer on Physiology. He later succeeded George Pollock as Surgeon to the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street. Johnstone was also Surgeon to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease, and to St George’s and St James’s Dispensary. In 1861 he declined to stand for the vacancy of Assistant Surgeon to St George’s Hospital following the death of Henry Gray. In 1862 he moved to Brighton where he practiced as Surgeon to the Brighton and Sussex Throat and Ear Hospital, the Invalid Gentlewomen’s Home, and the Brighton Battery of the old Royal Naval Artillery.

He was twice married, his second wife surviving him. Johnstone died on 16th March 1902 in Brighton.

Henry Minchin Noad

Henry Minchin Noad was born in 22nd June 1815 at Shawford, Somerset, the son of Humprey Noad. He was educated at Frome Grammar School. He began the study of chemistry and electricity, and about 1836 he delivered lectures on both subjects at the literary and scientific institutions of Bath and Bristol. He joined the London Electrical Society in 1837.

In 1845 he began his studies under August Wilhelm Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry. He joined the medical school of St George’s Hospital in 1847 when he was appointed to the chair of Chemistry. He remained in this role until his death.

In 1849 Noad obtained his degree of doctor of Physics from the University of Giessen. In 1850-51 he conducted an inquiry into the composition and functions of the spleen with Henry Gray. In 1856 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was appointed Consulting Chemist to the Ebbw Vale Iron Company, the Cwm Celyn, and Blaenau, the Aberdar and Plymouth, and other iron works in South Wales. In 1866 he became an examiner of malt liquors at the India Office. In 1872 he became an examiner in Chemistry and Physics at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich.

Noad died at his home in Lower Norwood, London on 23rd July 1877, survived by his wife Charlotte Jane.

William Howship Dickinson

Image of William Howship Dickinson
Image in public domain

William Howship Dickinson was born on 9th June 1832 in Brighton, the son of William Dickinson of Brockenhurst. He was educated at Caius College, Cambridge and at St George’s Hospital. After graduating in 1859, he became Curator of the Museum, Assistant Physician in 1866 and Physician in 1874. He was also Assistant Physician from 1861 to 1869 at the Hospital for Sick Children, and later physician from 1869 to 1874. He held the offices of Censor and Curator of the Museum at the Royal College of Physicians, delivered the Croonian Lectures in 1883 and the Harveian Oration in 1891. Dickinson was Examiner in medicine to the Royal College of Surgeons and to the Universities of Cambridge, London and Durham.

Thomas Pickering Pick recalled attending an anatomy demonstration by William Howship Dickinson. He said that ‘The first of these which I attended was on the kidney, and a specimen from the dead-house was exhibited. I ventured to ask, no doubt with all diffidence as a beginner, whether it was not a very large one, and was met by the remark: “By no means; perhaps you are thinking of the kidneys you have eaten for breakfast this morning.” At this there was a universal titter, and I felt extremely small. But undoubtedly the suggestion was a perfectly true one. It was the first time I had seen a human kidney, and my knowledge of that particular organ was entirely derived from the sheep’s kidney on the breakfast table.’ (‘The Men of my Time’, St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, No. 3, Vol 1)

Dickinson was a general physician but he was known as an authority on diseases of the kidney and children’s diseases. He was known to be a meticulously careful observer who visited the wards of St George’s Hospital every day to observe his patients and take their medical histories. Dickinson was said to have ‘worshipped St George’s Hospital almost to the point of idolatry and received in return, during his long life, no small measure of its homage.’

In 1861 he married Laura, daughter of James Arthur Wilson, physician to St George’s Hospital. They had four daughters and two sons. Dickinson died on 9th January 1913.

Cecil Hastings

Unfortunately not much is known about Dr Cecil William Hastings, Demonstrator of Anatomy at St George’s Hospital. The student registers of the medical school reveal that he was educated at the University of Oxford and became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians. He took the post of House Surgeon in 1853 and was also Physician at the Royal Pimlico Dispensary.

Search the Authority Records on the Archives and Special Collections catalogue to find out more about the Surgeons and Physicians of St. George’s Hospital (https://archives.sgul.ac.uk/).

Screenshot of a search in the Authority Records on the Archives and Special Collection catalogue.

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St George’s Archives – Morbid appearances

Opening Up the Body’ is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The comprehensive reports contained within these volumes reveal some fascinating stories, which we’ll be sharing with you via the Library blog. Today’s post comes from Juulia AhvensalmiArchivist.

We have now catalogued a good chunk of St George’s historical post mortem records, and are preparing to make them available on our catalogue soon. In our blog posts, we’ve been exploring various themes and aspects emerging from the records, from examining cases of leprosy and hysteria, to delving into the social backgrounds and occupations of the patients.

But let’s take a closer look at the records themselves. Do they always contain the same information? How are they structured? What do they actually say? The format doesn’t vary very much: the records we are now cataloguing stretch from 1841 to 1920, and tend to follow the same template, as shown in these images from 1845 and from 1920.

Post mortem examination book 1845 (Sarah Leigh, PM/1845/126) and Post mortem examination book 1920 (John Welburn, PM/1920/182). Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Post mortem examination book 1845 (Sarah Leigh, PM/1845/126) and Post mortem examination book 1920 (John Welburn, PM/1920/182). Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Apart from the two earliest volumes, in which each case occupies only a single page, all the volumes reserve a two-page spread for each individual patient. The labelled boxes across the top of the pages record the patient’s case number, name (sometimes also occupation is noted here), age, date of their admission to the hospital, date of death, the name of the doctor admitting them, the length of time between death and the post mortem examination, references in medical and surgical registers and the ‘Nature of disease’.

This last box details the cause of death, based on the examination. Sometimes the cause is determined to be straightforward, and the box only lists a single ailment (‘Fracture of skull’, ‘Pneumonia’), but more often multiple diseases or other ailments are listed – there is not always a single cause of death, but multiple contributing factors. In the catalogue we are including a transcription of this field, as well as a standardised form of the disease(s), using Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). Treatments (in particular operations) as well as post-mortem changes and features of the body sometimes also appear in this list, and can vary from brief and vague (‘Disease of the heart’) to very long and specific:

‘Renal sarcoma (removed by operation). Accidental inclusion of small gut in abdominal saturation. Volvulus of small gut. Small gut obstruction. Commencing peritonitis’, or

‘Phthisis. Old adhesions of the pleurae. Lymph in pericardium. Atheroma in aorta & mitral valve. Tubercular spots in various parts of the intestines with ulceration of the mucous membrane. Mesenteric glands enlarged’

Post mortem case notes for Elizabeth Burnett in PM/1849/20, signed by Henry Gray; and Alice McDonald, PM/1918/290, signed by H.I. (Helen Ingleby). Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Post mortem case notes for Elizabeth Burnett in PM/1849/20, signed by Henry Gray; and Alice McDonald, PM/1918/290, signed by H.I. (Helen Ingleby). Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

The left-hand page, labelled ‘Morbid appearances’, is reserved for the details of the post mortem examination in which, following a general description of the appearance of the body (‘Body well-formed and in good condition…’), each examined part of the body is listed. This is sometimes presented as larger wholes (cranium, thorax, abdomen) or simply as list of organs and body parts that were examined (left hip, skull, lungs, heart, uterus and so on). The bottom of the page is usually signed by the doctor who performed the examination; this tended to be a fairly junior doctor. Sometimes there is more than one name.

Any preparations or samples taken are also listed here, with references to the catalogues of the Pathology Museum of St George’s – as a part of the Post Mortem Project, we are listing these references and attempting to locate them in the museum – the referencing systems have, however, been changed multiple times over the years, so the task is not always that easy.

Medical case notes for James Cronin, PM/1864/233, signed by Octavius Sturges; and John Welburn, PM/1920/182, signed by Wathen Ernest Waller. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London
Medical case notes for James Cronin, PM/1864/233, signed by Octavius Sturges; and John Welburn, PM/1920/182, signed by Wathen Ernest Waller. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

The right-hand page is for details of the medical case before the patient’s death. This, too, is usually signed by the doctor examining the patient, and is similarly formulaic: first, the history of the case is rehearsed, detailing symptoms and other details, followed by a description of the patient on their admission and details of the treatment(s) received prior to their death. If there is no post mortem examination, no medical notes are included either.

There are of course some differences in the way the case notes are presented during this time – we are, after all, talking of a period of 79 years. Some, although by means not all, of the 20th century volumes contain a carbon copy of typewritten medical notes instead of the more usual handwritten ones (a blessing for the cataloguers, who have to decipher the often rushed handwriting – the later volumes also tend to be more difficult to read!). These notes were copied from the medical and surgical registers recording all admissions to the hospital. Unfortunately, however, we no longer have these registers, so it is impossible to tell whether the notes were copied exactly or changed in the transmission.

Wordcloud of adjectives in the post mortem volumes. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.
Adjectives in the post mortem volumes. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London.

Perhaps, however, typing your notes rather than writing them down by hand affected the way the cases were recorded: the later volumes certainly tend to be briefer, focusing on the medical facts only, where many of the earlier case notes contain more colourful descriptions and often personal observations by the doctors: the patients are often described in terms which strike the modern reader as distinctly subjective in a medical context, even unprofessional and offensive. Some of the language used in the descriptions can come as quite a shock to the 21st century reader, such as descriptions of patients as ‘idiot’ (which remained as part of the medical vocabulary until the 1970s), ‘stupid’ or ‘half-witted’:

‘[He] was never more than half-witted and could follow no occupation. The [epileptic] fits increased in frequency and the man became more nearly idiotic’ [Alfred Dolman, PM/1891/376]

Racial and ethnic prejudices similarly appear in the medical case notes. John Lusila (PM/1854/384), a waiter who died of tuberculosis, is described as ‘this poor black’. Of Michael Fitzgibbon (PM/1864/127), a cooper who died aged 32, it is simply noted: ‘Of this illness no accurate account could be obtained (the patient was Irish)’; it is unclear whether the reason for the trouble in communication was linguistic (perhaps Michael did not speak English?) or something else. Jane Caldecourt (PM/1887/283), a kitchen maid who died aged only 17, is described as ‘a well-nourished, healthy-looking girl of very dark complexion, mother was a coloured woman’.

From the case notes made by Octavius Sturges in the Post mortem volumes. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London
From the case notes made by Octavius Sturges in the Post mortem volumes. Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

One of the doctors, Octavius Sturges (1833-1894), who was a medical registrar at St George’s Hospital in the 1860s, was particularly fond of sketching evocative and occasionally even poetic images of the patients with his words. One patient is described as ‘an anxious, delicate girl with an anxious, sad expression’, another as ‘a dark, spare person of melancholy aspect, a needlewoman’; another as ‘stout and well-built with the countenance of a drunkard’ or ‘a miserable, emaciated old man having the withered and wrinkled face of a mummy’. The reader gets a very immediate sense of the people in front of Sturges (and of Sturges himself in the process): perhaps he had unrealised ambitions as a novelist? A rather disparaging description of Sturges by a colleague after his death describes Sturges as ‘A man of ordinary size with his head rather sunk down between his shoulders. The colour of his face was high and purplish, for he was a victim of nitral stenosis. Not one of our great physicians, he was a thoroughly practical children’s doctor’ – the truthfulness or kindness of the statement can be debated, but it does seem like a description Sturges might have approved of.


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The Founder of Post Mortem Examinations at St George’s, University of London

Opening Up the Body’ is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The comprehensive reports contained within these volumes reveal some fascinating stories, which we’ll be sharing with you via the Library blog. Today’s post comes from Natasha ShillingfordProject Archivist.

Photograph of portrait of Sir Prescott Gardner Hewitt, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London
Photograph of portrait of Sir Prescott Gardner Hewitt, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

‘It is not the oil-painting which adorns the walls our board-rooms…which will cause him so vividly to abide in our memories as, perhaps the unrivalled collection of pathological experience which this Hospital possesses, and which we owe to the initiation of Sir Prescott Hewett. For it is to him we are indebted for the inauguration of the system of recording the post-mortem records of the Hospital, which had now remained in force for over fifty years, and which has endowed us with a collection of pathological experience perhaps unrivalled in the medical world. This is a monument which will ever remain and will be ever associated with the name of Hewett.’ (‘Distinguished St George’s Men’, St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, Vol III, Issue 25)

Post mortem examination signed by Prescott Hewett, PM/1842/104. Post Mortem Casebooks, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London
Post mortem examination signed by Prescott Hewett, PM/1842/104. Post Mortem Casebooks, Archives and Special Collections, St George’s, University of London

Prescott Gardner Hewett was born on 3rd July 1812, the son of William N W Hewett of Bilham House, near Doncaster, by his second wife. His father was a country gentleman whose fortune was said to have suffered from his love of horse racing. Hewett received a good education and spent some years in Paris where he trained in the studios, having first decided to become a professional artist. However he became acquainted with the son of an eminent French surgeon and he became inspired to joint the surgical profession himself. He studied anatomy in Paris before returning to England.

Upon his return he entered St George’s Hospital where his half-brother Dr Cornwallis Hewett had been Physician to the hospital from 1825-1833. The excellence of his dissections caught the attention of Sir Benjamin Brodie, and he was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy and Curator of the St George’s Hospital Museum around 1840. The first record in his handwriting was dated 2st January 1841. It was said that his ‘lucidity of expression, his clear and graphic exposition of his subject, his apt illustrations, and above all his facile and ready pencil, which served to demonstrate the most complicated anatomical point, soon gained him recognition and esteem of his class.’ (‘Distinguished St George’s Men’, St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, Vol III, Issue 25)

It was during his time as Curator of the Museum that the post mortem records that are currently being catalogued as part of the Opening up the Body project were first commenced by Hewett. Also, many of Sir Benjamin Brodie’s preparation in the Museum were put up by Hewett.

He was appointed Lecturer on Anatomy in 1845 and Assistant Surgeon on 4th February 1848. He became full surgeon on 21st June 1861, in succession to Caesar Hawkins, and Consulting Surgeon on 12th February 1875.

He was also elected President of the Pathological Society of London in 1863, and ten years later he occupied the Presidential Chair of the Clinical Society. Amongst his other positions, he was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary to Queen Victoria in 1867, Sergeant-Surgeon Extraordinary in 1877, and Sergeant-Surgeon in 1884 in succession to Caesar Hawkins. From 1867 he also held the appointment of Surgeon to the Prince of Wales, and afterwards King Edward VII. On August 6th 1883 he was created a baronet.

Hewett was also Arris and Gale Professor of Human Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons from 1854 to 1859, a Member of the Council from 1867 to 1883, Chairman of the Board of Examiners in Midwifery in 1875, Vice-President in 1874 and 1875, and President in 1876.

On 13th September 1849 Prescott Hewett married Sarah Todmorden, eldest daughter of the Rev. Joseph Cowell, of Todmorden, Lancashire, by whom he had one son and two daughters. He died on 19th June 1891 at Horsham, where he had retired after being created a baronet.

Few men have ever left the world with a more stainless record of duty honestly done and of success won by no ignoble means.

(‘Distinguished St George’s Men’, St George’s Hospital and Medical School Gazette, Vol III, Issue 25)


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A Case of Leprosy in the Archives

Opening Up the Body’ is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The comprehensive reports contained within these volumes reveal some fascinating stories, which we’ll be sharing with you via the Library blog. Today’s post comes from Natasha Shillingford, Project Archivist.

The post mortem record of Amy Bradshaw, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London, PM/1884/9

Amy Bradshaw, a seven-year-old girl, was admitted to St George’s Hospital on 24th July 1883 and she later died on 10th January 1884. She was suffering from Leprosy.

The medical case notes record that ‘Her mother was a native of Oxfordshire, her father of Barbados, where his family had lived for three generations since leaving Scotland.’ Amy was one of six children, one of whom died in infancy of dysentery, and two had Leprosy. The sister next above her in age was four and a half years older, and she developed symptoms of Leprosy in 1875. Amy was said to have first developed symptoms herself in 1879, when her mother noticed raised spots ‘like blind boils’ on her back and thighs, which after a time turned brown and were succeeded by a fresh crop.

On admission she was described as ‘a dark intelligent child of characteristically leprous aspect. Over the face and hand the flattened tubercles, in parts red, in parts brown, are abundantly scattered: the nose enlarged, flattened at the tip, red and pigmented; the lower lip the same.’ On her arms, legs and feet were depressed cicatrices and scattered dark brown pigment.

On examination the larynx and epiglottis were found to be thickened and unnaturally white and a lumpy deposit was found. ‘The timbre of the voice is somewhat nasal and the vowel sounds slightly continental.’

Amy was treated with Chaulmoogra Oil in the form of an emulsion which was seen as a success and the child was happy as a rule, although she occasionally complained of soreness and aching in the leprous tubercles. On 17th December her temperature rose rapidly ‘when an acute invasion of the new growth set in with much pain and suppuration.’ The medical case notes report that Amy’s elder sister who was suffering from the same symptoms, was allowed to leave the hospital on 23rd December to spend Christmas at home. However, she developed pneumonia shortly after and died on 6th January. Amy also gradually developed pneumonia in the hospital and ‘sank with great pain, and high fever, dying in Jan 10 1884.’ The post mortem report states ‘Face disfigured by leprosy cicatrices.’

Leprosy affects the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes. It can cause loss of fingers and toes, gangrene, ulcerations, skin lesions and weakening of the skeleton. If left untreated, it can lead to a loss of sensation in the hands and feet. This lack of ability to feel pain can lead to the loss of extremities from repeated injuries or infection due to unnoticed wounds. Leprosy can also damage the nerves in the face which causes problems with blinking and eventual blindness. Other symptoms, which can be seen in the case of Amy Bradshaw, include flattening of the nose due to destruction of nasal cartilage, and phonation and resonation of sound during speech.

Credit: Elephantiasis graecorum, True Leprosy. Chromolithograph.
Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The disease takes its name from the Greek word λέπρᾱ (léprā), from λεπῐ́ς (lepís; “scale”). Leprosy has a long and complicated history and for centuries has been associated with social stigma, which even in the modern day continues to be a barrier to self-reporting and early treatment.

The earliest possible account of a disease which is believed to be Leprosy appears in an Egyptian papyrus document written around 1500 BC. Indian texts from 600 BC also describe a disease that resembles Leprosy. The first account of the disease in Europe occurs in the records of Ancient Greece after the army of Alexander the Great came back from India, and then in Rome in 62BC which coincided with the return of troops from Asia Minor.

Leprosy had entered England by the 4th century AD and was a common feature of life by 1050, although throughout its history it has been feared and misunderstood. It was often believed to be a hereditary disease, or some believed that it was a punishment or curse from God. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) considered people with Leprosy to be heretics.

Others thought that the suffering of lepers echoed the suffering of Christ and they were enduring purgatory on earth and would go straight to heaven when they died. Therefore, they were considered closer to God than other people.

Leprosy patients were often stigmatised and shunned by the rest of society. During the middle ages people suffering from Leprosy were made to wear special clothing, ring bells to warn others of their presence, and walk on a different side of the road.

Credit: Manuscript showing leper. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

A passage from Leviticus 13: 44-46 shows the biblical perception that people with leprosy were unclean and should be ostracised from society:

the man is diseased and is unclean. The priest shall pronounce him unclean because of the sore on his head.

Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

Credit: Two lepers receiving food through a wall. Etching by Gaitt after A. Decamps. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Even in more modern times, patients with Leprosy were often confined to colonies called Leprosariums because of the stigma of the disease. Some of these colonies were situated in remote lands or islands, such as the island of Spinalonga off the coast of Crete which was used as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957. The novel ‘The Island’ by Victoria Hislop tells the story of the leper colony on Spinalonga and its inhabitants.

In 1873 Dr Gerhard Henrik Armauer from Norway identified the germ that causes Leprosy. The discovery of Mycobacterium Leprae proved that leprosy was not a hereditary disease, or a punishment by God, but an infection caused by bacteria.

Patients with Leprosy were often treated, as can be seen in the case of Amy Bradshaw, with oil from the chaulmoogra nut. The treatment was said to be painful and its success was questionable, although some patients appeared to benefit. Leprosy is now curable with multidrug therapy (MDT) which was developed in the early 1980s

The last case of indigenous leprosy in the UK was diagnosed in 1798. Leprosy can no longer be contracted in this country, but there are around 12 new cases diagnosed each year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/leprosy) figures state that in 2018 there were 208,619 new cases of leprosy diagnosed. This is approximately one every two minutes.


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Hysteria in the archives

Opening Up the Body’ is a project to conserve the Post Mortem Examinations and Case Books of St George’s Hospital, 1841-1946. Our Archive team have been cataloguing and digitising records dating from 1841-1917 – that’s about 27,132 cases across 76 volumes. The comprehensive reports contained within these volumes reveal some fascinating stories, which we’ll be sharing with you via the Library blog. Today’s post comes from Juulia Ahvensalmi, Project Archivist.


Elizabeth Greed was 51 years old in 1888 when she was admitted to St George’s Hospital. Her medical case history, which survives in her post mortem record in the archives, tells us that she was married and had had five children; one of them had died. Another one was said to have tuberculosis, and one was said to be a ‘cripple’. When she was young she was said to have suffered from hysteria and scarlet fever.

Elizabeth herself said that about five years before, whilst walking in her garden, she had suddenly lost power in her legs. Although she recovered from this incident, she had been knocked down in the street the previous summer, and had struggled walking ever since. She also complained of various other ‘abnormal sensations’, including tingling in her limbs and a constricted feeling in her chest. She felt like she was floating in water when sat down, and when she walked, she could not feel the ground. She was also annoyed by a constant smell of sulphur.

She went to ask for treatment at Guy’s Hospital, but, feeling ill-treated there, took a cab to come to St George’s Hospital instead, then located at Hyde Park Corner. She was received by a young doctor called Richard Sisley, who in his notes describes her as ‘olive-skinned’ and her manner as ‘hysterical’. He says she only appeared to be able to walk supported, describing her movements resembling those of a marionette. He thought many of her symptoms pointed to hysteria, although the loss of power and the involuntary movements of her legs were suggestive of ataxic paraplegia – a condition that can be hereditary, or caused by damage to brain or the spinal cord, and is characterised by loss of motor function in the lower extremities.

The post mortem record of Elizabeth Greed, Archives & Special Collections, St George’s, University of London, PM/1888/132

Elizabeth was admitted as an in-patient to the hospital on 7 March 1888. Further examinations found no abnormalities in her heart or lungs, but she was becoming increasingly paranoid and delirious. She thought she was being poisoned by turpentine mixed in her food. She was worried she would be sent out of the hospital, but she also thought that the ward she was in was filled with paraffin and would be set on fire. She lost weight, becoming increasingly weak, until she was unable to stand. On 11 April 1888, ‘she died without first symptoms, quietly’. The cause of death was recorded as possible mania and dementia, and ataxic paraplegia.

The case notes in the post mortem record of Elizabeth Greed do not elaborate more on her alleged hysteria, but her case gives us a glimpse of how women’s health was approached: despite her symptoms pointing to a physical condition, her behaviour is labelled as hysteric. Life in the 1880s London was not easy, and this was particularly the case for the poorer part of the population. We can assume that Elizabeth was poor, as those able to pay would not have attended a charitable hospital such as St George’s – they would have had the doctors come to them, or visited them at their private practices instead. The census records reveal that Elizabeth was from Clapton, and her husband Robert had moved to London from Taunton in Somerset. They lived in Bermondsey, which in the 19th century was a buzzing industrial hub, specialising in tanning, leather working, cotton work and food processing. All this industry meant that the population in Bermondsey was largely poor: the factories offered employment, but it was not particularly secure or well paid. Elizabeth is described as a ‘needlewoman’ (other related occupational terms include ‘dressmaker’ and ‘seamstress’). This was often work that could be done from home: sewing and mending clothes, making it easier for the women to care for their families. It was also, however, work that was very much underpaid, and the working conditions were likely to have been dire, with insufficient light and long hours, whether the work was done at home or in a factory.

But why was she labelled hysteric? Hysteria is no longer part of the medical vocabulary, but in the 19th century it was a common way to describe and diagnose what was perceived as emotional excess, primarily of women (this usage of course still continues outside medical diagnoses). It was seen to affect women from all social classes. The term encompassed a variety of symptoms, including anxiety, nervousness, agitation and demonstrations of sexual desire. Sexuality was at the heart of the condition; the word hysteria comes to English via Latin hystericus, from Greek ὑστερικός (husterikós, “suffering in the uterus, hysterical”), from ὑστέρα (hustéra, “womb”). Hysterical symptoms were thought to originate in the womb, and a commonly cited method of treatment was said to involve using a vibrator in order to gain release in the form of orgasm – this, however, is a myth rather than a commonly employed treatment.

Brodie, Benjamin. 1837. Lectures Illustrative of Certain Local Nervous Affections. St George’s, University of London Archives. Credit: Juulia Ahvensalmi

St George’s also plays a part in the history of hysteria. Benjamin Brodie, one of the most eminent doctors of his time and physician to the royal family, examined cases of ‘nervous affections’ in 1837. In these cases, patients had suffered from articular pain and swelling, but there had been no deterioration of bone or cartilage in the post mortem examination. In Brodie’s view these cases were neurological disorders, perhaps following a minor injury or a strong emotional experience, which could lead to a ‘hysterical knee’, for instance.

Another St George’s doctor writing about hysteria was Robert Brudenell Carter, who worked as an ophthalmologist at St George’s in 1870-1883. In his 1853 book ‘On the Pathology and Treatment of Hysteria’, he (unlike most of his contemporaries) emphasized the effect of emotions on the nervous system, arguing that a strong emotion might lead to a hysteric attack even in otherwise healthy women, as well as men. The prevalence of hysteria among women could, in his view, be explained by women’s heightened emotions, but also due to their having to suppress their emotions more than men, who were allowed to be physically and sexually more active.

The association of hysteria with the nervous system rather than the uterus, and with psychological, rather than physical, causes became more widely accepted during the 19th century. Jean-Martin Charcot was instrumental in re-defining hysteria in terms of neurological disorders, and his use of photography at the Salpêtrière asylum in Paris created controversial imagery of female hysteria.

Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell advocated the so-called ‘rest-cure’ to calm the overstimulation of mind, which he believed was the cause of hysteria. This treatment was made infamous by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in 1891:

“John is a physician, and perhaps—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see, he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to “work” until I am well again.”

John W. Ogle, a physician at St George’s, discusses the case of Sarah G., 20, who was admitted to St George’s Hospital in 1869. She stated that she had been coughing and vomiting for about a year, and she had never menstruated until three weeks before her admission to the hospital. She had been treated previously at other hospitals for pain in the abdomen and vomiting. Ogle describes her as ‘rather delicate and interesting-looking’, and her manner as ‘somewhat sly and hysterical’.

Caption: John William Ogle (1824-1905), physician at St George’s Hospital. Credit: US National Library of Medicine

She was fed beef-tea and milk with limewater: beef broth was standard hospital fare, and the limewater was intended to relieve indigestion. Her constipation was treated with a ‘blue pill’ and the herbal remedies colocynth, senna draught and calumba; she was also given spirit of ammonia and bicarbonate of potassium. The so-called blue pill was (rather than Viagra!) a mercury-based medicine commonly used for this purpose, but also for treating a wide variety of other complaints, including syphilis, toothache and tuberculosis. Later various other medical concoctions were attempted, including calomel (mercury chloride), edemas made of castor oil and rue, belladonna (‘beautiful woman’ in Italian, from its cosmetic use for dilating pupils, the plant is also known as the deadly nightshade, and was used by the Roman empress Livia Drusilla to poison her husband emperor Augustus), brandy, prussic acid and morphine – it’s a wonder she was still alive at this stage, one might think!

Although her condition did not appear to be improving, she was seen to get up from her bed to watch Queen Victoria pass by the hospital on her way to open Blackfriars Bridge. This convinced Ogle that she must have been faking her illness. Despite her continued refusal to eat, she vomited and evacuated her bowels. Ogle quotes in his article a letter allegedly written by her to another patient, asking her to bring her a ‘nice peice [sic] of bread’ and to take care that she should not be seen to do so. She was further treated with faradisation (muscle stimulation by electric currents), and she was given daily baths until she got her period; she was also forced to do some exercise by walking her to the middle of the ward and then ‘leaving her to scramble back to her bed’. She appears to have got into disagreements both with the ward nurse and with Ogle, her doctor, until one day she suddenly walked out of the hospital.

Ogle diagnoses this case as ‘temper-disease’, suggesting that the original symptoms relating to her lungs may have been real enough to begin with, but that the attention received from exhibiting these symptoms had led the patient to feign further, imaginary, symptoms. He describes his patient as ‘by nature self-willed, with a ‘naughty’ disposition, badly trained, too well pleased to attract and receive attention, of an hysterical temperament’. Quoting Benjamin Brodie, he suggests that it is possible that even the cough was a hysterical symptom – a hysterical lung, if you will.


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