Introducing the India Office Medical Archives Project

We are very happy to be featuring a guest post from Alex Hailey, who has kindly agreed to introduce to our readers the India Office Medical Archives at the British Library. Apart from the records mentioned below, our project also works with medical periodicals published in colonial South Asia. Our colleague Sally Frampton from the Constructing Scientific Communities project is also conducting a study of vaccination debates in Britain and their transnational ramifications in the nineteenth century.

*****

The India Office Medical Archives project is funded by the Wellcome Trust to identify and catalogue material relating to health and disease within the records of the East India Company and India Office, held at the British Library.

Background

Disease was a major challenge to the imperial project in India. The records document the efforts to maintain the military and civil administration in good health, and later attempts to improve wider public health and sanitation. Statistical returns, correspondence, reports on drug trials and epidemics, patient case studies and educational materials all present a full picture of developing medical knowledge and its translation into public policy.

Ref: IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login, 25 Oct 1850

Ref: IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login, 25 Oct 1850

Benefits of cataloguing

The holdings consist of over 14km of records created by the East India Company, the British Government Board of Control, the India Office and the Burma Office. They are administratively complex, and tracing subjects across the different departments can be time-consuming and frustrating. Cataloguing increases visibility and enables access.

Project so far

So far entries for over 3,300 records have been published on the Library’s Search our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Authority files for key subjects, individuals and institutions are being created and linked to relevant descriptive entries for ease of access, potentially opening up the collections for researchers with a single search.

A selection from the records

The collections contain administrative reports and statistics across a range of topics, for example smallpox vaccination. The records document the introduction of vaccination, the challenge posed by older inoculation practices (variolation), and the debate over the regulation of vaccine practices through legislation. Also documented are the difficulties experienced in producing and transporting valid lymph matter throughout India.

IOR/F/4/169/2985 Measures taken to introduce smallpox vaccination to Bencoolen from the Bengal Presidency, 1803-04

IOR/F/4/169/2985 Measures taken to introduce smallpox vaccination to Bencoolen from the Bengal Presidency, 1803-04

Records document the establishment and development of medical institutions, from hospitals, asylums and sanatoria to medical schools and colleges. Detailed information on buildings, staffing and equipment requirements, treatments offered, and annual reports can be found in the collections.

Mss Eur D712/4 Volume of layout plans for typical hospitals and units thereof made for British Station Hospitals Committee (c1917-19)

Mss Eur D712/4 Volume of layout plans for typical hospitals and units thereof made for British Station Hospitals Committee (c1917-19)

The project has also identified a number of previously unpublished reports on epidemics and drug trials. The Government of India Medical Proceedings for 1873-1914 contain numerous reports on the treatment of snake-bite, leprosy and sleeping sickness, to name a few.

IOR/P/1005 Jul 1877 nos 43-108. Experiments in treating leprosy with Gurjun oil

IOR/P/1005 Jul 1877 nos 43-108. Experiments in treating leprosy with Gurjun oil

The records also document the development of bacteriology and tropical medicine, and the international exchange of medical knowledge. Officers in the Indian Medical Service regularly conducted research and contributed to international investigations, participating for example in Royal Society investigations into malaria and sleeping sickness. The period 1890-1920 saw the establishment of a network of laboratories throughout India and Burma, and the collections include material relating to the Bombay Bacteriological Laboratory (now Haffkine Institute) and numerous Pasteur Institutes, initially established to provide rabies treatment.

IOR/V/27/856/16 Preparation and use of anti-plague vaccine (Bombay: Times Press, 1907)

IOR/V/27/856/16 Preparation and use of anti-plague vaccine (Bombay: Times Press, 1907)

Other resources

These records complement other resources for the history of colonial medicine in India. The National Library of Scotland’s Medical History of British India portal provides free access to digitised India Office publications, including the Scientific Memoirs by Medical Officers of the Army of India from 1884 to 1901. Publications from 1902 onwards are held at the British Library.

As a Wellcome Trust Research Resources-supported collection, researchers from all disciplines are encouraged to apply for a Research Bursary to use our collections.

The project is ongoing until October 2015, and we are happy to answer any questions about the collections.

Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives project

Advertisements

Boating Blues

Boat Race image

With the crowds, the launches, and the world’s media watching, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race seems a fairly riotous occasion. Such disruption as we see, however, including Trenton Oldfield’s protest in 2012, is as nothing compared to the experience in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1863, the medical reformer Dr Benjamin Ward Richardson depicted the scenes on the banks of the Thames on the day of the boat race, with maniac equestrians charging through the crowds, cannons firing and blowing off fingers, and even noses: ‘women screaming from balconies and windows: children falling from garden-walls, or rolling into the stream to be fished out by dogs, half drowned or dead’. On the river itself, following the rowing boats, were ‘heavy, black, roaring, filibustering steamers, calling themselves “Citizens,” and so weighted with human yelling craft that one side is in the water and the helmsman thinks it a consolation that it could not possibly be a worse fate to go over altogether’. How sedate we seem now, with our mildly drunken crowds, and carefully managed flotilla of launches, carrying media-men, and a few lucky university members. No lost fingers or noses, no half-drowned children; no black steamers freighted with yelling hordes. Even the finish, with our excited television announcers proclaiming the results to the world, seems tame by comparison with the Victorian experience: ‘pandemonium let loose, in such a burst of human throat, cannon throat, steam throat, as charges the very clouds with thunder, and telegraphs to Hercules the news that “Oxford has won”’. This is the age of the telegraph, but Richardson depicts a wonderful mix of modes of communication: horses instantly dash off in all directions carrying the news, whilst the air is filled with pigeons, ‘ticketed “Oxford has won”’, flying away at sixty miles an hour, and that instrument of modernity, the telegraph, ‘dins every station in the kingdom’ with the news of Oxford’s victory.

Richardson’s own interest in this scene of mayhem lies not so much in the spectacle itself, as in its implications for health. The above descriptions come from an article in the newly-founded Social Science Review on the consequences of physical overwork. The Victorians, as many historians have noted, were deeply concerned about the possibilities of over-pressure on the brain from new modes of work, but less attention has been paid to their concerns with its physical correlate, over-pressure on the body. Richardson is in favour of exercise, but in moderation. He warns of the dangers of the ‘competitive animal physics’ exhibited in the boat race. His verdict on the triumphant crew is alarming: there is not one ‘who will not die so many years sooner by so much effort performed beyond his natural power’. Although extreme in its rhetoric, his argument chimes with current popular and medical concerns about excessive exercise. In an interesting parallel with contemporary tales of individuals who move from sedentary lifestyles to over-active gym memberships, with fatal results, Richardson recounts the story of men who have ‘waxed fat’ and have joined the Volunteer force (the equivalent of our Territorial Army) ‘”to work themselves down”’, and have instead destroyed their health, and worse. In opposition to the tenets of muscular Christianity, and the supreme faith placed in physical exercise and drill as training for the imperial mission, Richardson suggests that the Volunteer system, ‘instead of imparting national strength, … is elaborating national weakness, by enforcing in excess exertion which, in moderation, would be most useful’.

Over the next decades, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race became the focus of repeated medical investigations in an attempt to determine whether placing such a strain on the body did indeed injure health. Richardson, founder and President of the National Cycling Society, was strongly in favour of exercise, but retained a healthy scepticism towards the benefits derived from the boat race itself: ‘Two boats holding crews half naked, said crews tugging might and main to gain a ridiculous staff, opposite and belonging to a “public” house’. Would he have been surprised to learn that the tradition (with minor modifications) continues unabated to this day?

Sally Shuttleworth