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Wellcome Witness Seminars: a new phase

May 7, 2012

Queen Mary, University of London – by Tilli Tansey

In October 2010, thanks to a Wellcome Trust fellowship, I relocated from the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London (where I ran the History of Twentieth- Century Medicine Group) to the School of History at QMUL. At this new home, I will be continuing the successful Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine series of meetings and publications. We have just published two new Witness Seminar volumes from QMUL, on the development of intensive care, and on the first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL).

At QMUL, I head the newly established History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group, which will continue to focus its efforts on the development, management and influence of biomedicine within modern society, with a focus on recording, archiving, analysing and publicising materials related to modern biomedicine. A recent Strategic Award from the Trust for our group’s project on ‘Makers of Modern Biomedicine: Testimonies and legacy’ will allow us to expand and continue for a further five years, developing and extending our previous work. Our Group currently comprises, besides me, Lois Reynolds and Caroline Overy, and two part- time temporary staff. The full team will be established as the new phase of our work gets underway in 2012.

The major premise of the new project is that to understand modern biomedicine and its history it is essential to know something of the lives and careers of its key figures. Our patron saint might well be Ralph Waldo Emerson, who claimed that “there is properly no history, only biography”. The ambitious research programme will capture the oral testimonies of many who have made significant contributions to the legacy of modern biomedicine. By ‘key figures’ we mean, inter alia, practitioners, researchers, policy makers, funders etc., including individuals and groups who may be known only to a select few, but whose work and influence has been of considerable significance. ‘Biomedicine’ is also interpreted broadly to range from laboratory sciences, through every kind of medical practice, to healthcare policy and implementation at local, national and international levels.

The principal methodology we use is that of oral history, particularly the complementary techniques of individual interviews and Witness Seminars. We are interested in recording a range of views, not just those of ‘the great and the good’ in each field; our experience of finding participants for previous Witness Seminars and of running other oral history projects, plus the advice of our specialist advisers and other contacts, will assist our efforts to include many different voices. The interviews and Witness Seminars will be grouped into five major thematic areas: clinical genetics, neuroscience, global health and infectious disease, medical technology, and the ethics of research and practice. These areas all have deep significance in contemporary society.

The material generated during this new project (20 Witness Seminars and 130 individual interviews are currently planned) will be transcribed, edited and prepared for publication in a variety of digitised and print media, and will be made widely and freely available. This follows our established practice of making resources immediately available online for other researchers to consult. We also work closely with staff from the Wellcome Library to archive and make available all the research materials generated by our work, and a temporary archivist during the final months of our project is an essential component of the team. The resultant data will also be published in a variety of different formats (currently we use published text, archive deposits, podcasts, YouTube and iTunesU clips). In this way, we will provide easily accessible sources for deeper and broader explorations of the cultural, social and strategic value of the biomedical sciences.

Tilli Tansey is Professor of the History of Modern Medical Sciences in the School of History, Queen Mary, University of London. Find out more about the Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine.

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