People's History of the NHS

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  • 02
  • JUL

Capturing the History of NHS at 70: The Royal College of Physicians & ‘The Museum of Modern Medicine’

by Roberta Bivins

In this 70th anniversary week of Britain’s National Health Service, we are delighted to share a guest blog from Curator Kristin Hussey of the Royal College of Physicians (which is also celebrating a significant birthday this year: the big 5-0-0!). Happy Birthday, NHS!

The museum of modern medicine

What would a museum of British medicine since the foundation of the NHS look like? What objects would it include? What stories would it tell?

In light of this year’s NHS70 anniversary, the Museum, Archive and Library of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has been rethinking how we collect and display the history of modern medicine. As Curator, it’s my responsibility to help shape and grow our collection of art and objects so it reflects the ever-changing history of doctors in England and Wales. 2018 is also a big anniversary for the RCP as we mark 500 years since we were established by King Henry VIII in 1518. Since our foundation, the College has been collecting artefacts and archives which trace the history of the organisation, of its membership and of physicianship. Our collections of the early modern period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are particularly rich – helping us to understand more about the wealth, power and ceremony of the early College as well as the development of anatomy. However, as you approach the end of the Victorian era, the museum collection grinds to a standstill.

This lack of collecting beyond the First World War is something I have noticed in many medical museums. Why is it so hard for us to imagine a history of medicine beyond the guts, gore and pain of the nineteenth century operating theatre?  Personally I think there’s an aura of the past about famous doctors and surgeons like Joseph Lister, Edward Jenner, John Snow or William Osler that somehow makes them seem more important. Maybe it’s because the gruesome, outdated and strange tools and remedies of the era seem stranger to us than the stuff of ‘modern medicine’ – the everyday things you can find in a GP surgery or a hospital.

I believe that it is actually this everyday stuff of medicine in the last 100 years that we should be collecting. Museums may seem to be about the past, but they are really about the future. What are the stories and objects people will want to see in exhibitions in 25 years, 50 years or 100 years? What will people think of medicine in 1948 or indeed 2018 when they enter into the realm of ‘history’?  Anniversaries like NHS70 remind us that the mid-20th century is a crucial point in the history of medicine and now is the time to be capturing those objects and stories. With that in mind, the Royal College of Physicians would like to collect and display objects related to the foundation of the NHS and its early years.

Medicine between about 1940 and 1990 represents a period of monumental change. Antibiotics and organ donation, genetic testing and the emergence of HIV/AIDS – displaying the many innovations of the 20th century presents an enormous challenge. As a curator though you aren’t just looking to capture moments of discovery (although that’s important), you are looking for objects that tell a personal story. Sometime which has inspired me about the People’s History of the NHS project is the emphasis they place on the individual experiences of patients. When a visitor comes to a museum, they want to understand what people thought and felt in the past. Whether it’s a doctor or a patient, understanding what a particular artefact meant to someone – how they used it, what it reminds them of, why they kept it. These details can helps us to interpret these items meaningfully for the visitor.

One of the greatest challenges I have found in collecting objects from the 20th century is that people often think their items aren’t important enough to go in a museum. Yet it is often these everyday objects which have the most fascinating stories. Any object can be history if it captures a person’s thoughts or feelings at a particular moment in history. Part of the interesting thing about the RCP Museum is we are interesting in the experiences of both patients and doctors – but ideally stories which bring both together, which help us to understand how patients and doctors have interacted in the past. Two items from our collection illustrate the kinds of artefacts we’d like to collect and display from the NHS era: an early telegram from a doctor desperately seeking insulin to save the life of  young diabetic patient, and this 1994 oesophageal stent, donated by our president-elect Andrew ‘Bod’ Goddard. Stents like these are used in the treatment of cancer, helping to ensure that tumours don’t block the food pipe. Originally invented in the 1880s, this type of plastic model was introduced in the 1970s. However, the plastic stents were difficult to place – something which Dr Goddard dreaded as a trainee doctor. More recently, much more flexible expanding metal stents have been introduced, making these uncomfortable versions a thing of the past. As Bod says, ‘As they are for my patients, oesophageal stents are close to the heart’.

 

If you are interesting in donating something to the Royal College of Physicians related to the NHS, please email history@rcplondon.ac.uk   But first, let me tell you a bit more about what we can and cannot collect, and how you can contribute your objects to our collections!

Note from the editors: Remember, the People’s History of the NHS ‘Virtual Museum of the NHS’ is also collecting. We would be thrilled to collect images of all your NHS objects, big or small — and to hear, save, and share all your stories about them.

 

And if you can’t wait to see more objects, don’t forget to watch this wonderful series on BBC 4, Monday night at 9:00 and available on iPlayer! Objects and stories contributed by members like you tell the human story of the NHS from 1948 until today.

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