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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or via our social media channels, and we will do our very best to answer any questions you may have.