Carianne Whitworth interviews acclaimed author and medical historian Richard Barnett about bodies, the relationship between art and medicine, and archival love affairs.
CW: Hi Richard. Your new book ‘Crucial Interventions‘, an illustrated history of surgery, provides an illuminating context to some of the documents we hold here at The National Archives: from design patents for medical instruments to photographs of 19th century operating theatres. For those of us who are new to reading or researching histories of medicine, could you tell us about your experience of working with archives?
RB: Like most historians I served an apprenticeship in the archives: my PhD examined the emergence of obstetric anaesthesia as a clinical discipline under the early NHS, and I spent many happy early mornings cycling the Thames path to Kew, to go through the Ministry of Health and Central Midwives Board papers.
The things that really stuck in my memory were the little fortuitous discoveries – tracing a love affair between two civil servants through a series of pencilled notes at the bottom of carbon-copied letters, for instance.
Before that, I’d written a masters thesis based on the archive of the Society for Psychical Research at the University Library in Cambridge. I wanted to work out why psychical researchers had been so keen to connect their work with the networks of late Victorian science, and why they’d failed so completely. There’s one object in this archive – a small box, tied with a ribbon – which almost every researcher cannot resist ordering up because of its label: ‘Ectoplasm’ (to give the game away, it contains a piece of discoloured silk produced by the medium Helen Duncan at a seance in 1939). Continue reading »