Friday 21 July 2023

Medicine past and future: work experience at LHSA

 For two weeks in July, we had the pleasure of hosting Sanya Kuslii, a high school student soon to go into her final, S6 year. Sanya was on placement in the Career Ready programme, a national initiative connecting young people with the world of work through mentorship and hands-on placements. Sanya wants to study medicine, so her career aims are a bit different from people who usually work with us to gain experience. We hope we made the connection between Edinburgh's medical past and its (judging by Sanya's abilities!) very bright future. We'll leave it to Sanya to explain:

Hello, I am Sanya Kuslii and I am doing a 2-week placement with LHSA based at the University of Edinburgh as part of a 4-week internship with Career Ready. The structure of my internship is a bit bizarre – I had worked at the Anatomical Museum during the last week of June, where I helped gather information for the accreditation of the museum, and various bits and bobs. The following week I was at the Medical Campus Week at the University of Edinburgh, before starting my internship with LHSA; after these 2 weeks I will return to the Museum to complete my last week of the internship there. Despite just starting my second week with LHSA as I write this, I have worked on a few projects covering a variety of themes, which I have chosen to mention in this blog.

One of my first assigned tasks was to index some press cutting from the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, previously known as the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. The Hospital collected many cut-outs from newspapers or publications printed in Britain which mentioned the hospital or anything relating to it, such as the laws regarding the treatment of patients suffering from mental health disorders or patients that were treated in the Hospital. This was similar to the work I was doing at the museum, where I analysed large quantities of data, rearranging it into a more accessible format; at LHSA I handled the original bound volume from the Hospital and read the stories and news, and I was also able to improve my skills of skim reading and summarising large amounts of information into several sentences for easy interpretation. It was also amazing to see how well the book had been preserved for the past 150 years; the spine, cover and pages themselves were, arguably, in perfect condition.

Building upon the topic of conservation of archival material, I had the opportunity to work on some work surrounding the conservation of accessions with Ruth Honeybone, LHSA Manager. The accessions included some clippings from one of the patients of Prof. Norman Dott, a Scottish neurosurgeon and the first holder of the Chair of Neurosurgery at the University of Edinburgh. Enclosed was a newspaper clipping about Prof. Dott, admittance cards from the patient’s visitors, and an information booklet that had been given to admitted patients. Another accession was a collection of documents from the Edinburgh Cancer Centre and included re-prints of Professor McWhirter, research into cancer therapies, chemotherapy booklets and more. The hands-on work that morning included transferring the sheets of paper out of their original wrapping into acid-free folders to prevent them from decomposing, and making sure the documents sat comfortably in their boxes. What appealed to me through-out the morning was the different factors that you need to consider to efficiently re-house an accession – what paper should I use for this? Should I keep the original housing material, or can I bin it? How much material can I place into one folder before it becomes too much? Given my passion to pursue medicine after high school, the re-housing workshop reminded me of the numerous questions a doctor should be asking themselves when caring for a patient, as well as the methodical approach we took to ensure the accessions were placed in the right order.  

Prof. Norman Dott by William Hutchison (1960), copyright Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Another project I have enjoyed participating in was organising an activity for the University's Science Insights visit to LHSA, which focused on records from the Dietetics Department at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Medical Officer of Health reports from the early 20th century, and an 18th century patient case study from Dr John Gregory. For this project, I digitised the majority of the collection items, created questions the students could think about regarding the collections, and a slide show with photographs of the Dietetics Department. Given the short amount of time we had, the plan was to give each group folders with all three collections and let them explore them, before selecting a favourite fact/memorable piece of information to share with the others. They really enjoyed it, and we are hoping Science Insights will come back to LHSA next year.  

To get a better understanding about the kind of things LHSA do, apart from preserving and storing information, I had the chance to work through some enquiries with Louise Neilson, LHSA Access Officer. These queries came in last week, and were asking for some more information about patients. The two enquiries were different from one another: the first was very straightforward, and only required access to one patient register from Longmore Hospital, while the other was more complex, relating to a patient who had stayed at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for over 3 decades. We had to take out several bound volumes between two store rooms, following notes between pages to complete the search for the end of the records for that patient. I got to explore the two extremes of the types of things people can request from LHSA, and how the medical history of Lothian ties into the modern world.

During my second week I worked with some of the non-paper collections at the archive, which included oral history, photographs, glass plate negatives, film, and other objects. I chose to look at the photographs of medical teaching at the University of Edinburgh from the early 20th century, placing them into melinex sleeves for easier handling and writing up a shorts description about each one. I was excited to see how medicine had been taught at Edinburgh just a hundred years ago. Having recently visited the old lecture theatre where the majority of the lectured had been located, it felt surreal to look back in time at the theatre and imagine what it must have felt like for the students studying medicine at Edinburgh. Arguably, this was one of my highlights of the placement. 

Dr Derrick Dunlop (top) and Dr G Jamieson (below) teaching in the University of Edinburgh Medical School, c. 1930s (Acc20/009)

To conclude this blog I would like to say how lucky I was to get a placement with LHSA. I really enjoyed working with the small but lovely team of Louise Williams, Louise Neilson, and Ruth Honeybone, and I have learned a lot about archives: how they work, how they are relevant to today’s world – not just keeping and preserving information but also reaching out to the public. If you get the chance, definitely visit LHSA in the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the Main Library; they have some really interesting things and you will definitely want to come back.

Monday 16 January 2023

Dr George Rice (1848 – 1935) at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

This post contains racist / offensive terminologies which were used during the period it discusses.

Celebrated for his poem ‘Invictus’, William Henley (1849 – 1903) also penned an unabashed racist portrait of a former student of the University of Edinburgh. After graduating, the student worked at the RIE as house surgeon while Henley was a patient there under Joseph Lister.

The student’s name was Dr George Rice and he had an extraordinary life and career.

As a teaching hospital, the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) has long held a close connection with UoE’s (University of Edinburgh) Medical School. As LHSA is based at the UoE Main Library, we are lucky enough to have the University’s heritage collections at a stone’s throw away from our own archive. One of the great things about the two archives neighboring one another is that we can easily trace former UoE student’s careers if they then went on to work at the RIE.

Entry for George Rice in Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Student Ticket Journal (alphabetical ledger of tickets sold to students for admission for clinical training) LHB1/16/55.

George Rice within 'Graduates in Medicine' album, 1874. Edinburgh University Heritage Collections. EUA IN1/ADS/STA/8.  

Over the last few years, long belated moves have been made to reveal the stories of BAME alumni who attended Edinburgh University over the course of its history. Brilliant projects like UncoverEd have at their root a decolonising aim, with current students using the University’s archive to create a biographical database of notable BAME alumni. These past students have had a role in the University’s history yet a long heavy silence has erased their contribution to its institutional memory. The UoE has long accepted students from all nationalities (the first known black student was Jamaican-born William Fergusson - he matriculated in 1809) yet the historical students we remember, who have had films, books, and articles written about them, are largely white (and male).

Two years ago, NHS Lothian made a commitment to fully address how the Royal Infirmary benefitted from its ties to the Atlantic slave trade. LHSA welcomed researcher Simon Buck to the team, who has been sleuthing through our RIE archive investigating and uncovering the often painful and shameful truths of how little was untouched by the slave trade, whose profits left an insidious stain on Edinburgh’s history. For its part, the Royal Infirmary inherited an estate in Jamaica from a Scottish surgeon/slave owner in 1750 which the hospital still owned as late as 1892. Included in this inheritance were 39 human lives (or the estate’s slaves, later ‘apprentice’ labourers) who worked on it.

The Hospital’s links to slavery do not end there. The RIE would receive thousands of donations and bequests, a considerable amount of which was ‘blood money’ - or slavery-associated money.

There will be a series of public consultations on the RIE’s ties to slavery in the next month or so, to anyone interested, please do attend.

Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh - Copy of 'Inventory and Appraisement of the Goods and Chattels, Rights and Credits of the Late Archibald Ker'. Inventory includes 39 slaves, each listed with a name (given by slave-owner). LHB1/72/5/6a

Simon recently asked us about BAME staff at the RIE and our Archivist, Louise Williams, mentioned a black American surgeon, Dr George Rice, who was employed by the RIE during 1870s. She had come across his story while researching an enquiry we received last year. Some fascinating research has been written up on his life and career which I will link below. Dr Rice’s story provides links between institutions with every repository holding a fragment of a puzzle which, when pieced together, provides somewhat of a full picture of his life and career.

George Rice was born in Troy, New York, and graduated from Dartmouth College Medical School in 1869. Rice’s father, a steamship steward, wrote to Dartmouth’s President Asa Smith: ‘He wants to be a physician and I shall assist him in all my power to be an accomplished one’.


George Rice image courtesy of, Blacks @ Dartmouth 1828 to 1960 

After being denied admission to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, George moved to Europe to continue his studies.

He was first based in Paris before relocating to Edinburgh after the eruption of the Franco-Prussian war. He enrolled in Edinburgh University in 1870 and graduated in medicine in 1874, thereafter securing the position of House Surgeon at the RIE, working under renowned pioneer of antiseptic treatment in surgery, Joseph Lister.

Mention of George Rice in minute of  RIE Minute book 17th May 1975. LHB1/1/28

Serendipitously, my last blog post covered the nursing career of Janet Porter, who also worked under Joseph Lister as his staff nurse from 1869 to 1877. Undoubtedly, George and Janet must have encountered one another on the wards of the RIE – Janet was described as being ‘esteemed by the many students who came in contact with her’.

House physicians and surgeons were known as ‘residents’. As newly-qualified doctors, they would spend six months (at that time) working in the Infirmary supervised by a senior member of medical staff learning their ‘trade’. Although we do hold some records that feature residents, these do not say what life would have been like for them day-to-day, but are more like proof that they were there. But Henley's poem may give us an insight into Rice's experience of working at the RIE.

George Rice (middle) during his time as House Surgeon at the RIE. Image from 'The Student' Vol V, 1901. Reference: EUA IN20/PUB/1

William Henley was a patient of Lister at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh from 1873 for three years. During his time as a patient at the RIE, Henley wrote some 28 poems and a few of these were first published in The Cornhill Magazine as Hospital Outlines: Sketches and Portraits. The poems are impressions of those around him; his fellow patients, the nursing staff in the process of professionalization, and the general atmosphere of the hospital. One of these portraits, a racist description of George Rice, exposes Henley’s own blatant prejudice.

The poem, titled ‘A Student’, was published in the July 1875 edition of Hospital Outlines in the Cornhill magazine and appears just above Henley’s poem of Janet Porter titled ‘Staff Nurse – Old Style’. 

Racist poem in the July 1875 edition of Hospital Outlines in the Cornhill magazine

‘A Student’ is missing from later editions of the Hospital poems perhaps because of this letter written by Lister to Henley in which he reprimands the poet for publishing ‘so severe a picture’.

"It may interest you to see, if you have not already done so, what is said of them by the paper of which I send you a copy. I may add that it expresses very much my own feeling about them: they have surprised and pleased me very much. Of one of your portraits it would not become me to speak; but of another, that of 'A Student', you will I trust forgive me for saying that I cannot help regretting the publication of so severe a picture. I say this as your friend, because I sincerely hope with the Review that we shall 'hear again of' you as a poet; and I am afraid indulgence in this vein may make you needless enemies of those whom you so sharply chastise. I rejoice that you can report so favourably of your foot and quite hope it will soon be sound."

George Rice appears to have held Lister in high esteem (he christened his son with the middle name of ‘Lister’) and this sentiment seems to have been reciprocated. Within a certificate of recommendation written by Lister and held by Sutton Archives, he comments on Dr Rice’s ‘exceedingly efficient manner’ and ‘indefatigable zeal’ in which Rice went about his professional duties, writing that Rice will go on to secure ‘a very high place in the profession’. Dr Rice would indeed go on to have a brilliant career, eventually marrying and then settling in Sutton where we would go on to practise medicine. 

Lithograph of Joseph Lister, n.d. 

University of Edinburgh Journal 7, 1934/1935, p. 179. 
Rice is described as 'the last oldest survivor, with one exception, of Lord Lister's house surgeons in the Royal Infirmary.' 

In 1875, just when Rice was appointed House Surgeon for six months in Lister’s wards, Lister travelled to the Continent, leaving John Chiene in charge of his wards and clinical lectures for two months. Chiene had this to say of Rice: ‘it must have been a disappointment to Dr Rice to have me as his Chief, but I have never forgotten his kindly courtesy of me personally, giving me every help’. 

Dr John Chiene. Etching by W. B. Hole, 1884. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. William Brassey Hole was the grandson of William Fergusson (the first known black student to enroll at UoE). 

In an article published in the University Journal in 1991, Edward H. Cohen writes that the poem ‘A Student’ suggests Rice was unpopular in the hospital community and may have had little support during his student days in Edinburgh. One of Rice’s colleagues, G. A Gibson, wrote that Henley’s poem was ‘a rather savage description of a mulatto House Surgeon, whom we all disliked’. Rice’s skin colour is raised pointedly in both Gibson’s letter and Henley’s poem. Why he was so disliked we cannot know for sure but the implications made throughout the poem suggest his being a person of colour was the focus of the hostility.

In terms of context, the 19th century saw institutions across Britain fuelling an imperial and colonial agenda which sought to justify the dominion of whites over non-white people and advance racial inequality throughout the empire. This dogma would creep into the research of the Victorian scientific community with pseudo-sciences such as phrenology (Edinburgh was the principal centre for the study of phrenology in Britain at this time) and polygenism gaining widespread influence. Outwith the scientific community, there was a growing popularity of racist entertainment: human zoos and international exhibitions (which included living exhibits of colonised ‘exotic populations’) as well as popular shows involving blackface minstrelsy.

Back to Henley’s awful poem, I find the first two lines incredibly poignant:

A little black man, admirably neat,

Extremely ‘gentleman’ from head to toe

I can picture Henley’s probing eyes scanning Rice’s appearance from head to toe. He picks apart Rice’s immaculate clothing, his hair ‘peculiar to his race’ which he ‘soaks in water till the curl will smooth away’. 

The poet does his worst to insult Rice’s appearance while also dismissing the doctor's skill and intelligence (thin brilliance, commonplace intelligence). By doing so, he challenges Rice’s position at the RIE as a university-educated and promising young doctor. 

Henley describes Rice as being overly concerned with his appearance ('visits his moustaches day by day'), effeminate ('a very girl'), and conceited ('suspicious vanity') - much like a 'dandy', or 'fop'. Wikipedia describes the dandy as 'a self-made man in person and persona, who imitated an aristocratic style of life, despite his middle-class origin, birth, and background'.' I get the impression Henley is implying that Rice is dressed above his station, performing as a member of white high society. This is evidenced by the way he sandwiches the title of gentleman between air quotes, sneering at what he feels are Rice’s attempts of emulating the garb of a Victorian gentleman. 

Despite his ‘gold links and chain’, his ‘white shirt, and shiny boot’, and his prestigious degree from one of the world’s leading universities, Henley's glare shrinks Rice, reducing him to a ‘little black man’. 

We don't know if Rice read this poem, or what he made of it. What we do know is what Rice went on to make of himself, building a life and career which were nothing short of extraordinary.

For enquiries relating to past students at the UoE please contact the Centre for Research Collections Research Services team at: 

Further reading: 

[For more on Rice's career after the RIE] Object of the Month: October. Article by Whitehall Historic House. 

Black Victorians: the hidden Britons who helped shape the 19th century.

Dr George Rice and the creation of the Community Garden. 

[George Rice's younger sister Harriet was also a pretty incredible physician] 100 Years Ago – Dr. Harriet Alleyne Rice of Newport: The struggles of an African-American physician. 

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Nurse Janet Porter- nursing at the RIE before the 'Nightingale takeover'

Lauren writes about a much beloved nurse and the state of nursing before the implementation of the 'New System of Nursing'.

August 12th marked the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s death. Having a particular interest in the history of nursing, and being in the unique and privileged position of having immediate access to the archives, I took the opportunity to investigate the state of nursing at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) before the introduction of the Nightingale nurses and the training school for nurses. I came across several mentions of a Mrs Janet Porter, a staff nurse at the RIE for a total of 47 years. She lived through the incredible changes which took place at the RIE in 1870s with the introduction of the ‘New System of Nursing’.

Dr Joseph Bell painted a rather bleak picture of nursing before the introduction of the Nurses’ Training School: 'Without apparent exaggeration, it is almost impossible to convey to this generation the depths of disgraceful ignorance and neglect in which nursing lay in hospitals in 1854.'

There were nine nurses total in the surgical wards which housed 72 patients. These nine women were-'two staff nurses, each with about thirty six beds to look after, and seven so-called night nurses who had also to do the scrubbing and cleaning of the wards and passages.'

Joseph Bell (1837-1911) was a Scottish surgeon and advocate for the training of nurses.

Bell’s description of the staff nurses Mrs Porter and Mrs Lambert is rather flattering: 'wonderful women of great natural ability and strong Scottish sense and capacity, of immense experience and great kindliness. Up to their strength and opportunity, probably no two finer specimens of the old-school nurse could be found. All honour to their pluck and shrewdness!'

But he spares no punches when describing the other seven nurses: '…poor old useless drudges, half-charwoman, half field worker, rarely keeping their places for any length of time, absolutely ignorant almost invariably drunken, sometimes deaf, occasionally fatuous—these had to take charge if our operation cases when the staff nurses went off duty. Poor creatures, they had a hard life!'.

I had done some research on nursing for the digital resource list on the history nursing and one of the first things I learnt was that the general perception of nurses during the 18th and better half of the 19th century was incredibly negative. Figures like the fictional nurse Sarah Gamp from the Dicken’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit perpetuated the untrained, incompetent and drunk stereotype of the Victorian nurse. The RIE minute books (Nov 1967-Nov 1869 and Nov 1869-May 1871) confirm that there were instances where nurses were caught intoxicated on the job, and there were quite a few complaints made in regards to the general conduct of the nurses.

A dishevelled nurse with her disgruntled patient. Coloured lithograph by W. Hunt. c. 1825. Credit: Wellcome Collection. 

"The Nurse"; anonymous. Credit: Wellcome Collection

Angelique Lucille Pringle was the second Lady Superintendent of nurses. Trained at St Thomas', she was widely considered to be Florence Nightingale’s favourite. LHSA holds Angelique Pringle’s diary from 17th to 23rd Nov 1872, which she kept during a visit to the RIE while Elizabeth Barclay was Lady Superintendent. It is an invaluable record which vividly captures both the state of nursing at the time and the tensions and prejudices between these new, highly trained and educated nurses and the ‘old school nurses’. 

Pringle makes mention of nurses being intoxicated. In one instance, a night nurse called Annie Fisher is caught asleep on the job. After many attempts to wake the nurse up, Mrs Barclay asks Fisher “what about your patients, nurse?” Laughing, Fisher replies “Oh, I had nae mind o’ them”, which Pringle writes is a 'skillful epitome of the state of nursing'. After Pringle and Barclay wake up a Day Nurse to take charge of the ward, Annie Fisher follows the two women, enraged and screaming that she “had seen a good many out and she would see us out too!”

Typescript copy of Miss Pringle’s Diary LHB1/112/2 

RIE Minute Book LHB1/1/24- complaint regarding the conduct of Syme's night nurse, mention that she "has been indulging in intoxicants".

RIE Minute Book LHB1/1/25- report of nurse Janet Houston who had "been found intoxicated and unfit for duty" 

RIE Minute Book LHB1/1/25- nurse Jane Riddoch had been found in a state of intoxication

Much like Bell, Pringle lays it on pretty thick with her description of the nurses and her comments are often cruel and ignorant by today’s standard: 'Two of these nurses were hideously deformed in face, quite unsuitable on that account alone for their post. Their wards looked nice however.' The classism is so abundant within her descriptions of the nurses that it’s a bit hard to stomach at times- 'These were very pale all of them, some were sodden, some were stupid old women, some slovenly young ones of the lowest class.'
It would appear that the nurses bore the brunt of such animosity, when it was the system and the terrible working conditions which were mainly to blame, and no doubt played a part in the general incompetence of the nurses' work. The nurses at the RIE pre-1870s 'were poorly housed, ill-fed, underpaid and over-worked, and many of them were regarded as attendants and servants rather than nurses'. Shockingly, the night nurses’ shifts were extraordinarily long- they would come on duty at 11 o’clock at night and their shift would not end until 5 pm the next day! Their shifts were so long because, after completing their nightly nursing duties, they would still have to make breakfast and clean the dishes and wards and give patients their food.
Improvement to the conditions of nursing was largely overlooked by medical staff at hospitals during the first half of the nineteenth century. Florence Nightingale famously described the state of nursing at this time as a profession for ‘those who were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stupid or too bad to do anything else’. 

LHB1/1/25 RIE Minute Book, complaint of nurses diet.

Angelique Pringle mentions Mrs Porter a couple of times in her diary: 'One head nurse, Mrs Porter, looked quite a dear old lady but her wards were not nice. She has been 27 years here and has now one of the heaviest charges.'

LHB1/112/1 Angelique Pringle's diary

Before the introduction of the New System, it would appear that unruliness and chaos were not uncommon in the wards of the Infirmary. It also seemed to be pretty normal for nurses to be dismissed: 'On asking the nurses their length of service, we found several who had been only two days in the house ‘since that night’ said one of them ‘when so many of the nurses got drunk’.'

Even Mrs Porter’s conduct, according to Angelique’s diary, did not seem to comply with the Nightingale model of cleanliness and order: 'We found nearly all the gas blazing, the day nurses running about and a perfect riot of laughing and talking going on among the nurses and patients. Nurse Porter’s wards were the noisiest, the old lady herself being very loud.' Although she isn’t exactly reverential about the “old lady”, she does seem to acknowledge a certain ‘spark’ that seems to have captivated so many people.

Even Florence Nightingale herself wrote a letter to Angelique in which she expresses a fondness for nurse Porter:

'Please give her my kindest Christmas wishes and tell her I remember her perfectly and her care of me 16 years ago when Mr Syme took me over the infirmary. How long ago!'

Nightingale's letter to Pringle. LHB1/111/3a

Another interesting record is 'Biographical notes on Nurses not trained under the new system here, on duty Sep 1887': 'Dear old Mrs Porter, the crown of the staff, who needs no other description.'

LHB1/112/9 Notes on early nurses- nurse Porter is described as 'the crown of the staff'

Mrs Porter provided inspiration for the poet W E Henley who was a patient of Joseph Lister at the Royal Infirmary from 1873 for three years. He wrote the following poem about Porter titled ‘Staff Nurse- Old Style’:

THE greater masters of the commonplace,

REMBRANDT and good SIR WALTER — only these

Could paint her all to you: experienced ease

And antique liveliness and ponderous grace;

The sweet old roses of her sunken face;

The depth and malice of her sly, grey eyes;

The broad Scots tongue that flatters, scolds, defies,

The thick Scots wit that fells you like a mace.

These thirty years has she been nursing here,

Some of them under SYME, her hero still.

Much is she worth, and even more is made of her.

Patients and students hold her very dear.

The doctors love her, tease her, use her skill.

They say ' The Chief' himself is half-afraid of her.

GD1/8/2 Pamphlet, 1957

Henley was a patient during a time of great change at the RIE, when the structure and training of nurses was undergoing a historic transformation. He immortalised these sharp contrasts of the ‘Old Style’ and ‘New Style’ nurse (as he would coin them), in his poems. This one is called ‘Staff-Nurse: New Style’-

BLUE-EYED and bright of face but waning fast

Into the sere of virginal decay,

I view her as she enters, day by day,

As a sweet sunset almost overpast.

Kindly and calm, patrician to the last,

Superbly falls her gown of sober gray,

And on her chignon’s elegant array

The plainest cap is somehow touched with caste.

She talks BEETHOVEN; frowns disapprobation

At BALZAC’S name, sighs it at ‘poor GEORGE SAND’S’;

Knows that she has exceeding pretty hands;

Speaks Latin with a right accentuation;

And gives at need (as one who understands)

Draught, counsel, diagnosis, exhortation.

Here, we can see the marked differences between the two nurses, the 'New Style' nurse is represented as a more educated and ‘genteel’ woman.

Photograph of Janet Porter (middle) c.1870

P/PL1/S/257 Photograph of Angelique Lucille Pringle, with a group of senior nursing staff c.1880

I find it incredible and quite moving how cherished Janet Porter was. She was neither an innovator nor was she a reformer but she seemed to have made a deep impression on those around her. Who says that one has to be a trail-blazer in order to deserve recognition, poems and portraits?

She certainly seemed deserving of recognition- her care no doubt changed many patients' lives. Nurse Porter was clearly very good at her job, although untrained to the degree of the Nightingale nurses, she gives me the impression of having been hard-working and committed to building relationships with those around her- staff, students, patients and professors alike. The fact that she was kept on even after the introduction of the training school is evidence of that. She was an exemplary nurse at a time when nursing was vastly underappreciated and nurses were regarded with distrust. 

Janet Porter was Lister's staff nurse from 1869 to 1877. When the new RIE opened in 1879, she was kept on in the position of a "retainer" rather than an active nurse. She died in 1890 at the age of 80. A bed in Ward 9 was named the Janet Porter Bed and her portrait, subscribed for by the nurses who had been associated with her and presented to the managers in 1890, was hung in the main corridor of the surgical hospital in the vicinity of the ward.

RIE Minute Book LHB1/1/35- report on the passing of Janet Porter. "...true to a marked characteristic of her nature she died literally "in harness"". The Managers unanimously agree to name a bed after her in Ward 9.

Friday 5 August 2022

The Fascinating History of Anatomical Study

Our Access Officer Lauren writes about her recent trip to the Anatomy exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.
Virtue's Household Physician Vol I (1927) Acc10/024

If you’re from Edinburgh, or if you’ve lived here for a while, you’ve probably heard of Burke and Hare at some point or other.

I’ve seen Burke’s skeleton a number of times at Surgeons Hall museum (as well as the pocket book made of his skin!) and I've peered numerous times at his death mask at the National Portrait Gallery. I used to work on a jewellery stall on the Royal Mile and would have to listen to a gazillion tour guides theatrically describe how the duo would suffocate their victims and sell their corpses to the anatomist Dr Robert Knox for dissection. I thought my knowledge regarding this gruesome slice of Edinburgh history was pretty solid when I walked into the exhibition Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. But I walked out of the exhibition postively inspired and brimming with new knowledge and better still- a thirst for more!

The first (surviving) Register of Dissections 1842 GD20/2/8

I was particularly pleased to see a lot of material from the University’s archive, things I had the pleasure of consulting and handling when working at Research Services. A highlight for me was the vellum scroll, a petition signed by over 200 Edinburgh University medical students, for more cadavers for anatomical study. The petition was created in 1828, the same year as the West Port murders. Anatomical study depended on the supply of corpses of criminals who had been executed for murder (in Edinburgh, foundlings or unclaimed bodies could also be used for dissection). Edinburgh had amassed a very high number of medical students due to the medical school’s success and the demand for corpses outweighed the city’s supply. The trade of human corpses was therefore a very lucrative business, a corpse costing £7- a lot of money back then! The long scroll petition is placed close to a mort safe, a heavy iron box placed over a coffin to deter would-be body snatchers. Both are roughly the same length. I loved seeing the objects from the archive displayed like this, in a way which helps contextualise their place in history.

History of Anatomy by Alexander Monro (Primus), 1747. The handwriting is thought not to be Monro’s GD1/2

Another item on display is one from the LHSA collection, the volume Collection of Engravings Designed to Facilitate the Study of Midwifery from 1796, showcasing exquisite obstetric anatomical drawing. I was particularly captivated by the anatomical drawings, which included Leonardo Da Vinci’s studies, an engraving of a dissection by Hogarth and an image I will never forget- an incredibly detailed depiction of the dissected corpse of an unknown pregnant woman. It’s quite something to feel taken aback by an illustration in this day and age, especially by one which was created in 1774.

The West Port murders and the ensuing scandal had a significant impact on the distrust felt by the public towards dissection and the medical community. In Helen MacDonald’s book Possessing the dead, the artful science of anatomy, she describes the aggression which erupted during a violent snow fight at the steps of the College between university students and members of the public in 1838. MacDonald suggests the snow fight incident is proof of the tensions which lingered as a result of the anatomy school's role in the murders.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 would further this distrust, especially among the poor. Whereas before one had to be a murderer in order to be legally dissected, it was now possible for medical schools to buy unclaimed corpses from public institutions, namely prisons, hospitals, asylums and workhouses. The poor didn’t have access to the benefits of medical training and teaching, and dissection was still seen as a violation of the body, and post 1832, as a form of punishment for being poor.

The Anatomy Act 1832

“They tell us it was necessary for science. Science? Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it is necessary for science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated”

- William Cobbett, a critic of the Anatomy Act.

Rebecca Burrows writes in The Anatomy Act of 1832: The Story of Bodysnatching, Dissections, and the Rise of Anatomy:

“Out of 57,000 bodies dissected within the first hundred years of the Act’s implementation, less than half a percent came from anywhere other than institutions which housed the poor.”

The Act did create a steady supply of corpses, but did little to curb the public’s general revulsion towards the practice. Although the Act allowed for people to donate their bodies, by 1842 only 6 people had done so. I was particularly moved when I read that the introduction of the NHS in 1948, “coincided to an increase of body donation, partly because people saw it as giving back to a system which now cared for them for life."


By the 70s, institutions no longer relied on unclaimed corpses for anatomical study.

This wonderful exhibition inspired me to run a week-long social media campaign examining anatomy-related material from the LHSA collection. I absolutely loved finding material to share on our social media platforms and I'm eager to run another themed campaign at some point again- watch this space!

Thursday 26 May 2022

The Case of Charles Altamont Doyle

Charles Altamont Doyle’s artistic career never quite took off during his lifetime. His brother Richard ‘Dicky’ Doyle on the other hand, was a frequent contributor to the London magazine ‘Punch’ and even designed the publication's masthead. Charles would also never reach the levels of fame bestowed upon his son, the much celebrated author Arthur Conan Doyle. Although a gifted and creative artist, his chances of success were no doubt hindered by his declining mental health, his epilepsy and struggles with alcoholism. These all played a part in him being interned (or as he would write, ‘imprisoned’) within a total of three asylums - Sunnyside Asylum (Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum), The Royal Edinburgh Hospital (REH) and Crichton Royal in Dumfries, where he would eventually pass away.

"Honey Suckle, how unlike any other plant. But it's a creeper/Another sort of creeper not so nice as above"
Page from 'The Doyle Diary' by Charles Altamont Doyle and Michael Baker

During the 2020 lockdown, I stumbled across one of Charles’ drawings while sucked in to the usual time-killing, rabbit-hole internet searches. I quickly became fascinated with his sketches of flora and fauna, his propensity for puns, his dark humour, and his whimsical depictions of supernatural beings such as fairies and elves. I went on to purchase the book ‘The Doyle Diary’ which reproduces one of the sketchbooks Charles kept while he was a patient at Sunnyside Asylum.

My trusted second-hand copy of 'The Doyle Diary'

"9th April 1889 Delightful walk at Sunnyside" 
Living in Granton I can relate on a personal level to this drawing.
Page from 'The Doyle Diary' by Charles Altamont Doyle and Michael Baker

Fast forward several months, and I am the Modern Apprentice at the Centre for Research Collections, being given a socially distanced introduction to the varied collections at Lothian Health Services Archive by Louise Williams, the archivist for LHSA. She shows me a great deal of fascinating collection items, including a case book from the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. I am reminded of Charles Doyle’s sketches and I ask her if there might be anything relating to him within the case books. She said there should be a case book entry for him, as he was a patient for a time at REH, shortly before his death 1893. She invited me to contact LHSA to gain access to the records. I had meant to do so for a long time but never got a chance.

Fast forward again to almost two years later and I currently find myself working at LHSA as their interim Access Officer and I decide that the time has finally come to look at Charles’ case book entry (which definitely felt like a circle closing!).

The case books are invaluable resources for researchers and genealogists as they contain a wealth of precious information on past patients such as; dates of admission, profession, marital status, home residence, religion, description of illness, duration of attack, treatment carried out, updates of their condition and dates of discharge or death. Even appearance is recorded in some cases. For Charles we have that he was “Tall, thin. Dilated capillaries on nose” with “Greyish yellow" eyes and “Dark grey” hair."

Case Book

Doyle was interned within the asylum involuntarily as suggested by his certification paper, which was filled out by his wife Mary Foley Doyle. 

Certification Paper

"Mary, my ideal home ruler/ No repeal of the union proposed in this case"
Drawing depicting Charles and his wife Mary. Doyle was of Irish background and this drawing alludes to the Irish question.
Page from 'The Doyle Diary' By Charles Altamont Doyle and Michael Baker

He would be a patient at the REH from 23rd January 1892 to 26th May 1892. He was then transferred to Crichton, the last case book entry stating: “Transfer Certificate, His memory and general intelligence are very much enfeebled".

I was hoping that there might be some artwork in the archive that Doyle made while a patient at the REH but unfortunately nothing of the sort has been unearthed as of yet.

"Something queer both in head and heart/Lost 'em both./By no means unusual"
Page from 'The Doyle Diary' by Charles Altamont Doyle and Michael Baker

There were also a couple of enclosures which originally lived in the case book but for preservation purposes, have been neatly re-housed in melinex folders. The enclosures can range from photographs of the patient, correspondence, various types of ephemera, medical charts and more. For Charles there is a letter from the assistant medical officer at Sunnyside to his physician at the REH, regarding his transfer.
There is also a newspaper article, written shortly after his death. The article does not mention his internment within the asylums, simply stating that he “gave up residence in this city”, suggesting his actual whereabouts was kept from public knowledge, perhaps to avoid scandal. The article recognises Charles’ artistic talent but not without knocking his technical abilities: “While possessing a great force of natural genius as an artist, his colouring and composition were somewhat crude, but in expression of humour and pathos he had a great facility”. The article goes on to say that “Personally, he was a most likeable man, genial, entertaining, and amusing in conversation. Possessing a fertile imagination, it was always enjoyable to listen to his anecdotes”.


The case of Charles Doyle is rather a sad one. It's likely he lacked self-esteem and perhaps felt over-shadowed by the more illustrious members of his family. To have spent the last years of his life isolated from friends and family must have been incredibly difficult.

Self-portrait of C. A. Doyle.
 "Busting out"

"Trying to get out of quod (prison)"

Pages from 'The Doyle Diary' by Charles Altamont Doyle, Michael Baker 

I’m pleased that over time, interest in his art and life has piqued. Personally, his story has served as a rather nice segue into my new role at LHSA, combining three of my big loves: Art, archives, and research!

Lauren McKay

Further reading: "What became of Arthur Conan Doyle's father? The last years of Charles Altamont Doyle" by A Beveridge