No hope without penicillin…

I didn’t manage the full day of research I intended today up at Waddesdon. That will have to wait for another day. Instead I had a couple of hours in the depths of the staff reading room at Kew. I came across this record only a year or so ago, and thanks are due to my indominatable colleague Trish for pointing me to it. 

Today I was looking at the letters contained in MH 76/184 Distribution of Penicillin – general correspondence and I read and listed the first 60 items which cover 1943 and the early part of 1944. 

The Ministry of Health knows that Penicillin is almost within their grasp. The letters are fairly mainstream, sometimes repetitive but there’s a sense throughout that they know they are on the verge of something astonishing. Penicillin is being used in the treatment of wounds in Africa and Asia, and it is a game changer. 

The officials, medics most of them, who were dealing with the arrangements to bring penicillin into the UK, distribute it, train the staff in its use and monitor its use in a way we might nowadays recognise as medical trials, were still unsure about this new drug. They knew it had potential to make many illness none lifethreatening, but it wasn’t yet clear to what extent it would work. And this was just for the use of military personnel, those wounded in battle. There was little thought given to the point at which it would become available for civilian use.

The Americans were a little ahead of the UK in terms of use and distribution, and Prof. Francis Fraser cited a U.S. Report which summarised the number of requests they had had for this new wonder drug. 

“The Chairman… reported on the method of handling applications for penicillin for civilians. The office in Boston has handled 8,500 applications in five months. Most of these applications involve several letters, telegrams and phone calls. There is a staff of six and the Company has installed a Teletype machine and a separate telephone switchboard. They receive about 50 telegrams, 50 long distance calls and 75 letters a day, and those numbers are increasing.” 

The demand for this drug speaks for itself. 1700 applications a month In America alone, and steadily increasing. Being on the brink must have been so frustrating for the medics who knew this was coming and I think this is summed up by this telegram,  hoping (I suspect Dr. Hood knew against hope) that there might be penicillin available for this sick child.

As Hood was involved in the arrangements for the distribution of penicillin, he must have known that this request was at the very best, a shot in the dark. I’m no medic, but I know that peritonitis and septicaemia are nasty illnesses and in the age before antibiotics, the outlook for this child was poor. We’ll never know whether penicillin would have saved this child – possibly, if not probably – but this request arrived three months before penicillin even arrived from the USA, much less became available to civilians. On the 26th January 1944, Sir Francis Fraser wrote “apparently it is still difficult to define the usefulness of pencillin and its contraindications”, and this is certainly evident from subsequent papers in this file. Finally, for now, the particulars of the different diseases for which requests for penicillin had come in. 70 years on, we know that it wouldn’t have worked for some of these listed below but I can’t help but feel for these doctors, who were practising knowing there might just be something out there which might save a life, but which was presently unobtainable, just beyond their reach.

On the 7th December 1943, Sir Edward Mellanby (of the Medical Research Council) wrote:

“No substance can be more easily wasted, especially if it is poured into patients by systematic treatment”

It is clear from this file that the medics who ensured that penicillin became available to you and I were keen for it not to be used to a point where it became useless. These letters are only seventy years old. They are by no means ancient history. Yet, antibiotic resistance is now a major concern in the practice of medicine. In less than a century we have swung from one extreme to another. Deaths from infections are once again a very real threat. No new antibiotic has become available in over a decade. Seventy years on, the usefulness of penicillin is up for discussion once again. Only this time it is tinged with fear, not hope. 

Being a historian..?

There are a handful of experiences which determined my path into history. I’ve seen archaeologists point to Indiana Jones as their childhood link into their ongoing academic interests, and I’m the first to admit that I adored the Andrew Davies adaptation of P&P which came out when I was a kid. But I’m confident my love of all things historical started well before that. My Yr 6 teacher, Mr Rodman, took us out one sunny afternoon in the final days of primary school and walked us around the small country town I grew up in. As we walked down the High Street, he told us tales of various of the building, explaining their origin and their context in the history of the place. And I, aged 10, was completely entranced. That same summer I came across a gravestone, whilst walking through the churchyard on my way to choir practice. It had “good names” on it, names which intrigued me, as did the presence of really quite grown up children, buried with their parents. The father of the family, one Adam Adams, was a doctor and also, the mayor so I was confident that there would be information about him somewhere. His was the first piece of research I ever did.

Later, in Yr 8, the school arranged its annual trip to the battlefields. There’s a not insignificant war memorial at school, in the staff room, and one of our geography teachers had researched them all. Annually, he visited the graves of our men, introducing year after year of students to the men who had gone before them. I’m glossing over the trip somewhat because it wasn’t so much the trip which affected me (though it did in its way)  but rather the aftermath. A prize was awarded (the Wellicome Memorial Prize for History) for the best essay on return from the battlefields which I won: my prize? They Called it Passechendaele and The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald. Astonishing, raw, terrifying, humane writing which cemented my interest in the First World War as I read those books that summer. 

The following year I was lucky enough to be packed off to Gloucestershire Records Office (now Gloucestershire Archives) where I did my requisite work experience, but never quite left. Evenings and school holidays were spent engrossed in the records, notably the Free Miner’s Index which took up my Thursday nights for over two years. This in turn led to more work experience, this time at the Public Records Office and later at the Herzog August Bibliotek, in Wolfenbüttel, Germany. And my path was set. A degree in Medieval Studies followed, (specified as “the world’s most pointless degree” by Gordon Brown in his Today Programme interview the morning I got my A Level results) and then a MSc Econ in Archive Administration. I had eighteen months at Lambeth Palace Library, before I found myself back at the what had now become The National Archives. 

I’ve now been an archivist for nine years, with a brief gap for a Clore Fellowship and later, maternity leave. In that time I’ve never wavered from my identification in terms of my career. But lately, things have shifted a little in terms of my professional practice. A good friend repeatedly refers to me as a historian. Which, as someone who first and foremost identifies as an archivist, caused me to splutter and protest in the first instance. I’ve never thought of myself as a historian. That to me has always required particular academic attributes, and let me put the record straight on this one, I possess few of them. But lately, I’ve been thinking more on what constitutes a historian, and where exactly I fit into that, if I do at all. The next couple of years, planned out as they are in my head, hold a number of opportunities to develop and acquire several of the “things” that being a historian means to me. I suppose that for me, upon reflection, history has always been about the storytelling. About the individual in the circumstances. About the stories waiting to be told. That curious voice, of intrigue and enquiry has been with me for upwards of twenty years now. Happily, for me, there’s a lot still to be done with it. 

Summing up

I have, rather blatantly, cadged the title for this from the very lovely Jessica Meyer, for which I hope she’ll forgive me. The product will probably be more useful for me than for you, but ho hum. 2014 has been a tough year personally, and it has, inevitably, affected all aspects of my life. I am very ready for 2015 though I am already wary that the issues which tainted 2014 have already infiltrated into a year which has not even begun as I write this. Still, my out of office is set and I am away from my desk for a fortnight.

This year has twisted and turned in ways I could not have foreseen. Receiving the wrong box one miserable day in March was a notable turning point. For reference, I am by background a medievalist. Albeit not a terribly good one. I am not a natural academic, and although I liked my subject, I can reflect a decade on that it was probably not my forte. I did learn conviction for my subject however. Nothing schools you in defending your field of study like Gordon Brown announcing on the Today Programme that medieval history is a waste of time and effort on the very morning you receive your A-level results, which allow you to read medieval history…
My masters degree, on the other hand, was the making of me. I found my niche in Aberystwyth, and it was ace.

I’ve digressed. 2013 was a turning point in my research in the sense that I actually started to do some research again. Six months at home with my daughter made me realise that I needed to get in touch with what I loved most about my work. The records. I was awarded a Clore Fellowship in 2010, and one of the numerous things which came out of that was my very clear articulation that I had a bottom line, a very clear motivation for my work which is as follows:

I want archives to matter more, to more people.

On reflection, I’ve managed this much better in 2014 than perhaps I had previously. From individual conversations which led to significant deposit of long-overdue records, to blog posts to other things of which I cannot yet speak, the records have been at the centre of every working day this year. They matter. And I am in a position to make them matter to more people. I have a responsibility to make them matter to more people. Roll on January, February and March. Out of this year has also come research avenues beyond measure, the beginnings of what will eventually (I hope!) become a PhD, and a number of opportunities to work with lovely people on exciting projects with tangible results. Strangers, albeit names on a Twitter feed, have become good friends. Recurrent threads in conversation have turned into professional networks which challenge and enthral me in equal measure. So, right now, there are lists. Lists of lists. Lists in every notebook I own. Lists in my head. Lists which allegedly I talk about in my sleep. But it’s exciting. I am optimistic for what 2015 may bring. What’s next?


I love to #explorearchives

I can barely remember a time when archives were not central to my life. I’ve been a professional archivist since I was twenty two, and have researched and worked in record offices and archives on and off since I was ten years old. A thirst for knowledge about the people who lived in places before me saw me begging my parents to take me to the record office in the summer holidays. I was, to put it mildly, an unusual child.

To be an archivist is often considered unusual in itself. I’ve lost count of the dinner party/coffee shop/train carriage based conversations I’ve had where I’ve tried to explain what it is that I do. My side of the conversation often goes something like this…

“No, no. Not an anarchist. An archivist. I work with records. Yes, a bit like a historian. No, not usually dusty ones – we’re quite picky about keeping things clean.”

And yet, people are often entranced by the idea of making a career out looking after the history of the country. And it is entrancing. It’s fascinating. Wherever you look, whatever it is that you are interested in, there will be an archive that has something of use, relevance and/or interest to you. And so it should be. Archives matter. Archivists matter. Record keeping matters. What we do is important. Poor record keeping should be a matter of national concern. In recent years we’ve seen what happens when records aren’t kept, aren’t looked after, where record keeping is the lowest priority. And where archives are treasured, championed and well resourced, it isn’t just history which triumphs, but democracy.

This week is ‘Explore Your Archive’ week, spearheaded by The National Archives and the Archives & Records Association and championed by, amongst others, Kate Adie and Stephen McGann. There have been all sorts of things going on, virtually and in person, in record keeping organisations the country over. Keep an eye on the #explorearchives hashtag on Twitter, look out for our Thunderclap across social media and check out the Explore website

This message matters all year round. This week is a great opportunity to shout about what we do and why it matters, to draw attention to the value of archives to everyone. We have a number of significant anniversaries coming up in the next few weeks and months but it’s important to remember that archives are created by the present. It’s our responsibility to ensure that archives continue, adequately supported and appropriately recognised for their purpose, not just to record the past but to hold the present to account. So get out there, try your local archive or record office. Archives are friendly, welcoming, intriguing, inspiring places. Seize the opportunity to have an explore in one. It’ll be worth every second.

(Photograph shows Joseph & Stephen McGann, and was taken on a recent visit to The National Archives. It was great to introduce them to some more of our collections, and to discover some more for myself.)


A call out: Hubert Victor Bennetto

Some of you may know that I run a Rainbow Guide unit. Rainbows are the younger sister to Brownie Guides, but easily give their older counterparts a run for their money in the noise and enthusiasm department. We meet in a church in the Hammersmith/Shepherds Bush borders and although we’ve met there for a couple of years now, it’s only been in the last couple of weeks that I’ve paid any attention to the stained glass.

One of the windows, to the left of the nave is dedicated to a Hubert Victor Bennetto. Hubert was in the Royal Flying Corps, an Air Mechanic 2nd Class in the 7th Sqdn to be precise and he died on active service on August 8th 1917. His War Grave is documented here. His father was a bank manager in Lewisham at the time of Hubert’s death and indeed his wife Ethel is listed as living in Hither Green at the time of his death. Tragically their only child, a daughter named Edith died six months after her father aged just four. Ethel must have been beyond pain. My heart goes out to her, though I know she is long dead. I am intrigued to know what lead to the window being dedicated in Hammersmith as although I know that Hubert was baptised there, his connections with the church appear to cease from that point, at least as far as the records are concerned.

The vicar (and I) would dearly like to make contact with any surviving relatives of Hubert’s though I have not so far managed to discovered any. He has no direct descendants, and although he had a sister, her descendants names aren’t quite as easy to trace as her maiden name and it is proving tricky. Any pointers or contacts would be very gratefully received. The 100th anniversary of his death is not so far away, and the church would welcome the opportunity to recognise the man behind this window properly.

History and television: thoughts on The Crimson Field

I’m going to start out by saying that I do love a “historical drama” (and I am using that term in the loosest possible sense). I am a complete sucker for them. Ask my husband, who rolls his eyes at my DVD collection. Pride & Prejudice (1996 or 2005, either works for me). Check. Heartbeat. Check. Downton Abbey. Check. Lilies. Check. Call the Midwife. Check. Many others. Check. Anything set in the past, I’ll give a go. On the other hand, I can honestly say I’ve never watched a soap (since the Archers doesn’t count, and secretly I think of them as distant family I tune in to catch up with because they’ve been such a constant in my life.)

So I anticipated The Crimson Field with interest. Serious writing talent behind it, interesting topic, and a period I’m doing a lot of research in at the moment albeit not in any depth. Great. And since TV watching now seems to result in accompanied tweeting, it was fascinating to see other people’s responses. So now that the series is over, with no clear indication as to whether it’s going to carry on, I’ve got a few thoughts on a couple of the issues raised in various places about it. I’m not going to review each episode, but here’s my two pen’th.

Accuracy. For some people this is a clincher. If you have researched extensively, made your career out of this area then I completely understand that inaccuracies in the programme are going to wind you up. Fair play. I scream at the telly when they show something implausible on WDYTYA? Misrepresentation of the average person’s research experience on national telly really winds me up. There’s a reason it’s known as WDYTYD?* amongst the archivists of my acquaintance… The difference, to my mind, is that The Crimson Field is a drama. Not a documentary. It’s a story. I’m sure the crew worked bloody hard to make sure they were as accurate as they could be, and feasibly the red colour on some of the costumes is wrong and yes, having a Nissan hut in shot was a bit of a cock up, but I don’t think having every single exact precise detail is as important as good drama. And it was good drama, in my opinion.

I read various commentaries lamenting that the nurses were portrayed as less than perfect specimens of women. Shock horror. Writer portrays characters as humans. The various guises of nurses who served in the First World War were incredible women. They were brave and I am in awe of them for going out there and doing something meaningful. But none of them were perfect. And whilst I doubt the combination of stories portrayed in The Crimson Field happened in quite those terms, I can’t believe that women didn’t go out to France to escape something in their past, didn’t come from unsavoury circumstances, didn’t sign up underage, didn’t fall in love with men they worked with even. Certainly soldiers did, so why not the women too? I’ve researched enough men who served in the First World War to know that. But here’s the thing again. It’s a story. Several stories. Figments of the very talented Sarah Phelps’ imagination. I mean, if we’re really being pedantic about accuracy, it’s time someone wrote about how filming it in Wiltshire (or wherever it was) makes it less meaningful as a drama because the Unit was supposed to be in France.

The other gripe that particularly caught my attention was in response to the BBC tweeting details of the book it says inspired the creation of the series. I don’t mean to be rude, but unless you are Sarah Phelps, you have no business declaring what did or didn’t inspire her. And if the BBC say it did, then they probably have that on good authority. Perhaps reading the story of a nurse in another hospital made her wonder what the experience would have been for British girls and women? If she’d adapted that particular book, no doubt there would be whinging about plagiarism. Whatever the circumstances, I’m sure Sarah Phelps doesn’t need me to defend her.

*What Do You Think You’re Doing? (In my searchroom…)


It wasn’t until I moved away from the village I grew up in that I realised that other people didn’t do Remembrance Sunday like we did. Other people didn’t have maroons fired off the hill behind the Fire Station every November 11th morning. Other people didn’t have the police come and shut the road for a village length procession. Other people didn’t have the Silver Band march. It was something of a shock to realise this. In fact, one year during my postgrad days, I was so angry at what I perceived to be the total lack of recognition at the war memorial that I cried. Hot angry tears for wont of any proper ceremony. Wotton has a sizeable war memorial in the centre of the village, and a gilded, framed Roll of Honour in the town hall. We didn’t just commemorate the dead, we commemorated all the men who served. There was even a memorial outside the staff room at school, and a memorial history prize (which I’m pleased to say I won) – the Wellicome Memorial Prize no less. Commemoration of service in the First World War permeates the core of the village, to my mind.

It isn’t just that the names on these different lists were the same names as those in my classroom, though this goes some way to explaining it. It wasn’t just, as the 1990s and early 2000s wove their way through, that I too had friends and schoolmates serving the world over in the Armed Forces. We are very lucky that the War Memorial hasn’t had to be reopened since the end of the Second World War. The sense of loss pervades even into modern times because of the grossness of it. The scale and the hideousness. If that’s a word. On average, around 1 in 10 British men (of eligible age) served in the First World War. In Wotton, half of the men did. And only half came back. In five years, an eighth of the population was lost. One family sent five sons and two grandsons away to war. They got one of each back. A local man wrote an eloquent play, based on the letters that family received. I vividly remember sitting on the cold hard floor of the Green Room reading those letters. I was perhaps sixteen. Only a year or two younger than the brothers who had penned them some ninety years previously.

I did the sound for that play. But it gave me much more than I gave to it. I came away with a clear sense of the people in the history. In the midst of my A-Levels, and hating every single moment of modern history, I found the stories in the horror, the people in the madness. And it was both dreadful and brilliant. Mr Griffiths, my geography teacher, researched all the men on the war memorial. He wrote a book about them, told the story of each and every one. I in turn wrote my extended essay in the Upper Sixth about the impact on the village. And although I read Medieval Studies at university, and now work at the very forefront of the modern public records systems, my interest in the First World War, more specifically the people in the First World War, has never waned