The Xenopus test in the early NHS – by Jesse Olszynko-Gryn
As a young woman in the 1950s, Audrey Peattie injected urine into toads every day. She worked as a technician at an NHS pregnancy- testing laboratory in Watford (17 miles from central London). The toads were Xenopus laevis, originating in South Africa, but the urine samples with which they were injected came from women around Britain. NHS doctors posted their patients’ urine samples to Audrey for the diagnosis of pregnancy. Pregnancy tests really were reliant on toads in the era of modern science.
I had been researching pregnancy testing’s past in libraries and archives in Cambridge, Edinburgh and London for about a year when I came across Audrey’s story on a local newspaper website. An obliging journalist put us in touch and I was able to visit her in Watford in August 2011 to discuss her experiences working in the heyday of the ‘Xenopus test’. It was such a pleasure to meet Audrey face-to-face – a timely reminder to those of us who research in the medical humanities of just how fruitful public engagement and oral histories can be, often leading to surprising new perspectives.
Focusing on the stories of the medical humanities – by Elizabeth T Hurren, Editor of Wellcome History
“Have you ever tried to saw off the top of a skull?” My question to a newspaper reporter certainly got him thinking. We were talking about anatomy: surely, he had insisted, its practice was crude, like butchers in the days of grave-robbing. Not so, I replied, the story is more interesting than standard editorial slants. On reflection, my question about sawing a skull had sounded so normal when it left my lips, but not to the journalist. “No!” he exclaimed. “Quite honestly, nobody has ever asked me that before and I have interviewed thousands of people in this job.” Afterwards he sent me an email of thanks: “For that question, I will never forget you!” Later, over a caffè latte, I thought about all the normal but extraordinary things that we do in the medical humanities. In issue 51 [PDF 1.4 MB], we focus on some of those surprising stories that people our working lives.
Housewives, tranquilliser use and the nuclear family in Cold War America – by Tessa Johnson
1950s America: those were the good old days. Or were they? Viewing the past through rose-coloured spectacles – longing with a special kind of nostalgia for the white picket fences, home-baked cookies and families with a Mom, Dad and 2.5 children – makes misleading history. When contemporary critics bemoan today’s immoral society with its broken families and workaholic mothers, it is this era that they often hark back to. But postwar America was far from idyllic. Gazing historically inside the average suburban American house uncovers families still suffering from the economic fallout of the Depression, and a culture alarmed by the shadow of a constant threat of nuclear war and communism. The ‘domestic goddess’ cooking the family’s meal had a dark secret too. Everyday drug use for depression was very common among American mothers.
From anatomical dissection to poetic reconstruction – by Marianne Boruch
The words that first jolted –
that still haunt me –
came from American anatomist Jim Walker –
his cheerful –
“Sure – but would you like to visit the lab right now? We just unwrapped the heads.”
It dawned on me then, a dangerous truth: if awarded this Faculty Fellowship in a Second Discipline, I’d have to take it. My application was to participate, as a poet, in the Indiana University Medical School’s dissection lab on my campus at Purdue University. This is what prompted my conversation with Jim that day. At the same time, I would be applying to take part in a life drawing class in Purdue’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts.
Galen’s commentary on the Hippocratic Epidemics – by Simon Swain and Uwe Vagelpohl
This is the beginning of a medical case history that dates back to the fifth century BCE. It is preserved in the first book of a Hippocratic treatise entitled Epidemics. It describes the short and ultimately fatal disease of a man named Philiscus, an inhabitant of the Greek city of Thasos on the island of the same name. We follow the progression of his illness through the eyes of an anonymous observer who records various symptoms for each day. Other than that he lived in Thasos by an otherwise unspecified “wall”, the case history apparently offers little information about Philiscus himself. There is, however, more to his story. Thanks to a brief reference elsewhere in the Epidemics, we also know that he was the son of a man named Antagoras. Making these fragmentary connections takes us from ancient texts to a lost medical history awaiting rediscovery.
Making a play from a recipe book – by Sophie Cummings and Elaine Leong
Lydiard House, the ancestral home of the Viscounts of Bolingbroke and the St John family, is a classic Palladian villa on the western edge of Swindon. On a warm August afternoon in 2012, a public audience crowded into Lydiard’s beautiful walled garden for the opening of Johanna’s Miracle Garden. Starring local teenagers, the play told the story of Lady Johanna St John’s ‘cure for all ills’, written in her 17th-century recipe book, a prized family collection of handwritten household cures.
Lady Johanna was a fascinating and formidable woman. She combined running her household, raising her children and entertaining the King with compiling her book of medical cures. The play and other related activities brought art, history and medical science together to provoke interest, learning and debate about the historical and social origins of modern medicine.
Human expectations and experiences of cancer research – by Catriona Gilmour Hamilton
A letter to British Empire Cancer Campaign in June 1967 contained the following bold offer:
I have, after much careful thought and deliberation, arrived at a resolution which, it is hoped, will provide a certain amount of real assistance to your organisation while enabling me to do something worthwhile with my existence…
I propose to offer my body to medical science for use in its battle against cancer.
It may be that experimentation on a living human organism might provide medicine with a useful step forward such as could not be achieved so rapidly otherwise. …it seems obvious to me that a living human body used for such a purpose could help tremendously in bringing forward the date when the disease will be conquered.
The importance of keeping scientific archives in the digital age – by Jenny Shaw
In an electronic age, what sort of archive material will historians be able to research? This question is at the heart of the new Human Genome Archive Project sponsored by the Wellcome Library. Today, all sorts of researchers delete their emails or send old datasets to the trash-bin; memory sticks get lost; research papers are erased. Now, more than ever, researchers need to work together to find new ways to preserve e-history as it happens. If they do not, then future historians will be unable to reconstruct all the contributions that made possible major scientific initiatives such as the Human Genome Project.
Conference report – by Shaul Bar-Haim
What has psychoanalysis got to do with totalitarianism? Can psychoanalysis help explain the atrocities of the modern era or suggest forms of support for the victims of oppression? Should psychoanalysts ever work with state security services? These big ethical questions featured in a major international conference – ‘Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism’ – held in September 2012 in London. Scholars from around the globe met at the Wellcome Trust to explore the role of psychoanalysis in the face of totalitarian phenomena.
Laudanum in the 19th century – by Ruth Levitt
A careless mishap killed Sarah Newbery on 28 May 1843. She was a widow in her late 80s living in the parish of Hampton Wick near Hampton Court with her son, John Robert Kensett, who had returned from America to be with her in her old age. Due to recent stomach trouble, that morning she had taken a medicine she believed to be tincture of rhubarb, a common purgative. In reality she had swallowed a massive dose of laudanum. Three or four drops of laudanum (tincture of opium) were sufficient to kill a baby; an adult medicinal dose might have been up to 30 drops; seasoned addicts could cope with at least 200. She had taken a fluid ounce – over 550 drops.
The day before, John Kensett had been unable to find an old medicine bottle in a cupboard of home cures and so he picked up another empty one without checking its label, taking it to Mr Jones’s chemist shop a few minutes’ walk away in Kingston upon Thames. He handed the bottle to the chemist’s assistant, William Fothergill, and asked for two ounces of tincture of rhubarb. Fothergill asked if he was to put it in that bottle and John replied, “Yes, never mind the label.” Fothergill dispensed two ounces of a liquid into it, wrapped it and gave it back to John, who paid one shilling and waited for his change. Fothergill did not offer him any, prompting John to ask for it. “We always charge sixpence per ounce,” was the reply. John accepted this, but maintained he had always had change out of a shilling before.