Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Creative Writing and the RIE!

In this blog Access Officer Louise talks about a recent creative writing event that used LHSA's Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh collection as inspiration...



On the 25th July we invited the public to join us for an afternoon of creative writing exercises inspired by the records of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. To find inspiration participants looked at architectural plans and photographs, read minute books, listened to oral history recordings, and took a walk around the old site of the Infirmary at Lauriston Place.


LHB1/68/18 – Plan of Surgical Hospital, April 1872


Having no creative skills of my own I was fortunate enough to have Laura Beattie, Community Outreach Officer for Museums, Centre for Research Collections, on hand to take the group through a number of fun and fast paced writing exercises. We began by selecting an item from the collection display and then writing a Haiku based on it. The group then shared their Haiku’s and everybody guessed which item they had written about. Photographs of nurses proved very popular, with the word starch featuring strongly!

P/PL1/S/013 - b/w postcard showing a group of nurses and doctors on the balcony of wards 13/ 14 at the RIE, c.1910


The group then listened to three clips from oral histories taken as part of the pilot project to capture memories of the RIE building at Lauriston Place. We heard stories of a receptionist in the clock tower, the nursing home curfew, and too much custard. After some word association there was time for free writing and some sentence starters were given such as ‘I looked up and saw’. The clock in the tower formed the basis for a number of stories as the group were interested in it as both a visual and an audible feature of the building.

After this we worked up the courage to venture outside… out in to the hottest day of the year. While planning the event we had a conversation about what to do if it was raining heavily, but we never for once imagined that we might be too hot!


P/PL1/B/E/327 - RIE, Lauriston Place from the Meadows with sheep grazing


Before leaving we looked at the image above showing sheep grazing on the Meadows. We then weaved through sunbathers and footballers to find as close a spot to where the picture was taken as possible, and from there we observed the huge changes to both the building and the surrounding area. The group wrote down their thoughts on what they could see and smell, what they felt, what had changed, and what had not changed.

Our final exercise after returning to the air conditioned room inside the library was to write down three words or phrases that we had thought about on our walk and place them on the table. Working as one group we then assembled the words in to a poem, and the results can be seen below:


Women with long dresses and parasols
Green fields, grass, trees, bicycles, birds, spider
The smell of cut grass,
Sunbathing shepherds, Baaa Baaa, Baaa Baaa
Puddles, legs
Siren. Hope and Fear. Symmetry
Round windows staring out
Sheep and Shepherds viewed as patients smoking
“I’m just going to take your temperature”
No Meadows Access, Ivory Tower, Elite Space
Patients on a wheelchair sitting in sun escaping wards
Hot tarmac, gentle breeze
Old and new melding
Structures of glass and steel
The sounds of nature








When you are working with archive collections every day you are aware of their potential to stimulate and inspire, and to see it in action is always a wonderful experience. The event was enormously enjoyable, and we hope to put on similar events in the future. We are lucky to have so many fascinating collections that allow for endless possibilities!








Friday, 9 August 2019

Goodbye to Carmen!

This week, we have had to say farewell to Employ.ed intern, Carmen, as her placement comes to an end and she takes some well-deserved time off to enjoy the summer. Having Carmen with us has been a pleasure - not only has she embraced her task to compile a resource around the history of bio-engineering in Edinburgh (and finished her internship with considerably more knowledge about the subject than the rest of LHSA staff), but she has also approached every task she has been asked to complete with genuine enthusiasm. All that's left is to wish Carmen the best for her final year at University and her career ahead!

I have been working as a Bio-engineering Archive Intern with LHSA for ten weeks now, and my time at the Archive is now sadly coming to an end. I have had an absolutely phenomenal experience this summer and have loved learning about a whole new branch of medicine which I previously knew nothing about.

As part of my internship, I have been involved in creating an educational online resource about the bio-engineering industry in Edinburgh from the 1960s until the present day. As I mentioned earlier, I knew nothing about the history of bio-engineering at all before starting this internship; however, my desired research area is medical social history and the history of disability, and so I was very enthusiastic to learn. I spent the first few weeks of my internship increasing my understanding of the collection – so a long time looking through various boxes and files! – and narrowing down a few topics that I found the most engaging to discuss in my resource. I believed that it was extremely important to include the stories of David Simpson and David Gow, the pioneering medical professionals involved in developing various powered prostheses; the history of the Bio-engineering Centre where all of these developments took place; and how this in turn impacted the lives of the patients that they supported. 

As a History student, I found learning about a new topic that I might not have learned about during my degree extremely exciting, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much knowledge I had gained through my independent research in such a short space of time. As part of my internship, I was also extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to meet David Gow and conduct an oral history interview with him. This was beneficial in enhancing my knowledge about the history of bio-engineering in the city, as it meant that I was able to hear a personalised account from someone who had been a key figure in the industry. It also meant that I was able to record and catalogue the testimony for the Archive, benefiting researchers who want to study this topic in future. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the collection – I was a bit terrified that there would be hundreds of extremely technical engineering diagrams that, with my History background, I would not be able to understand! However, while there certainly are diagrams like that for those interested in understanding and interpreting them, there are also many parts of the collection that give us a glimpse for what it was like to be a patient at The Princess Margaret Rose Hospital (PMR) receiving treatment at the Bio-engineering Centre. In 1966, the PMR opened the Self Care Unit, where children with upper limb deficiencies would stay with their mothers while they received treatment. Around four or five families stayed at the Unit at the same time, meaning that the children forged close bonds with one another. 

One of my favourite documents is a patient album compiled by Helen Scott, an occupational therapist at the PMR. In the album, it is clear that Scott and other occupational therapists assisted children with upper limb deficiencies, including those affected by the thalidomide tragedy in the 1960s, in learning how to navigate daily tasks such as eating, dressing and going to the bathroom independently. In the files, it often mentions that parents were recommended to modify clothing (for example, using Velcro instead of buttons) for their children to make it easier for them to dress themselves. This document was extremely useful to my project as I gained more insight into both how intensive the therapy sessions for disabled children could be, and the encouragement that the children were given to be as independent as possible. Furthermore, I also learned that while some children chose to wear a prosthesis, there were also some who did not, preferring to use their feet instead. This brought home to me the importance of the Bio-engineering Centre, as the introduction of this department meant that patients had the choice as to whether they used an artificial limb or not.

Another one of my favourite elements of the collection is the diaries written by David Gow from 1981 to 1984. After Gow graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Edinburgh University in 1979, he soon began to work at an electrical engineering firm called Ferranti, where he kept daily written accounts of his work. This was a custom that he continued when he first began to work at the Bio-engineering Centre as a Research Associate in 1981. I really enjoyed reading these diaries because I think that they are a rare opportunity to see the beginnings of David Gow’s career, which is all the more fascinating because he has contributed to transforming the field of artificial limb design with his creation of the i-limb hand, the first ever artificial hand to have individually articulating digits.

After I had decided which areas of the collection I wanted to cover in my resource, I then started researching what was the most effective way to display my information so that it was engaging and accessible. I came across an online platform called Prezi, which is normally used to create interactive presentations. I thought the layout of the platform would be extremely useful in allowing me to create an interactive resource which would allow people to click on topics they were interested in and interact with the resource at their own pace. In order to make the resource as accessible as possible, I also researched what kind of colour schemes and fonts were the easiest to read for those with learning disabilities, which then impacted how I would choose to design my online resource. This was one of my favourite aspects of my project as I felt very supported and encouraged to take initiative and make these decisions by my colleagues at LHSA. It also meant that my resource can reach as many people as possible; as someone who desires to work in cultural heritage to ensure that everyone can learn more about their history, this is an issue that I am extremely passionate about.

My internship also allowed me to learn more about the diverse work carried out by LHSA. For example, I had a day where I worked with Louise Neilson, our Access Officer, on enquiries sent by those looking to learn more about their family history. I found this extremely enjoyable as it showed me the sheer wealth of enquiries that they receive on a regular basis and the amount of time and effort that goes into helping with each one. I also got to help out with the first ever LHSA Showcase – this was an event in which LHSA invited academics with a particular interest in health to look at our collections to encourage them to use data from archives in their research. 

As well as encouraging academics to use the collections, I had the chance to see the public outreach events activities of LHSA by attending community workshops and a creative writing class using the collections as inspiration. All of these events were a great success and further highlighted to me that the Archive does so much more than cataloguing (even though this is essential work!); they also work very hard to ensure that both the public and researchers feel comfortable to contact them and access their collections.

Overall, I am very proud of the resource that I have created as part of LHSA, and am very grateful to the team for allowing me the opportunity to be creative and improve my project management skills. This has made me realise that I should be confident in my own capabilities, which will certainly help me in my studies and in future work. I am very sad to be leaving but I look forward to seeing what else such a fantastic organisation has in store!

You can see Carmen's resource here: https://bit.ly/33rnT9R. In the meantime, here are some of her favourite images from the collections:


A patient at the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital painting using their feet. Taken from Helen Scott’s patient album, c.1960s/70s.

Archive Number: Acc10/001/A Selection of Children with Congenital Upper Limb Deformities who attend The Self Care Unit for Assessment and Training.



A page from “Clothing for the Limb Deficient Child”, 1968, Acc10/001. This was written by Aline K. M Macnaughtan, then Head Occupational Therapist at the PMR. On this page, Macnaughtan recommends that dresses have Velcro fastenings so that they can be taken on and off easily, even when wearing prostheses. It also mentions the importance of having enough space to hold a cylinder of carbon dioxideThis is because during the 1960s, Professor David Simpson, then Director of the Bio-engineering Centre, was renowned for making pneumatic (gas) powered artificial limbs because he believed that this was much lighter for children to use than the long-lasting batteries available at the time.







An entry from David Gow's diary, June 1983, Acc10/001. Gow began to have a work diary whilst working at Ferranti and it was a practice that he continued whilst working at the Bio-engineering Centre. This entry in particular discusses fitting a patient with an artificial limb. Personal names have been redacted. The diary entry reads as follows:

"10th June
Bill and Paddy are experimenting with fabricating a socket for [patient name].
Converted the OttoBock (scrap) hand for the hydraulic link jig took shaft through from motor piston (motor in housing) and fixed bevel gear to it.
Powered motor. Sufficient power to operate the hand from the link. Alignment of bevel gear seems to be critical and although it is possible to drive ma motor it is not possible to drive just by using hydraulic link.
Taking socket out [patient's home] to see if it fits.
13/6/83
Socket is perfect for length. Cap needs remade - bone becoming prominent. Cap being strengthened and beefed up."




Friday, 19 July 2019

Showing off (in a good way)!


We'd like the LHSA collections to be used even more by our colleagues across Edinburgh University, and last week we hosted a showcase event to promote the collections and introduce ourselves to people who hadn't heard about us before.

Invaluable help came in the form of Martyn Pickersgill, Wellcome Trust Reader at the Usher Institute's Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society). Martyn worked with us to draw up an invite list and decide on the format for our showcase. We started off with a welcome to the Centre for Research Collections, where we are based, and then gave short presentations on the service as a whole, the collections we hold, and previous research use (and a big thank you to Gayle Davis, Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine, for contributing the third and final presentation to the event). 

We also gave time over to a display that picked out the different record types in, and the topics covered by, the collections - a couple of pictures follow showing the display (along with Carmen our Employ.ed intern having a preview before everyone arrived!). Louise chose the items very carefully to help those attending see our collections in new ways and be inspired by the richness of the information held. It seems to have worked as a couple of the tweets that followed the event commented on how fascinating the material is and how there are "lots of exciting possibilities for research and teaching projects".



After a quick bite to eat we got the participants to work! We split them into three groups and asked each group to think about a question: what uses are there for LHSA collections? what else could we be collecting?, and who else could we invite to a showcase event? Everyone got stuck in and we had a great discussion and feedback session. 

The event has certainly sparked interest - 50% of those attending had an idea they would like to work with us on straight away, either using the collections for research or teaching, offering potential accessions, or helping with particular projects. This is a great result, especially as this is the first time we have run an event like this. But it won't be the last - do get in touch if you'd like to be involved in the next one!


Friday, 28 June 2019

RIE Oral Histories!



This week Access Officer Louise discusses the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Oral History Project…

At the start of May I began an eight month project to collect oral histories from people familiar with the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh building at Lauriston Place. The project has been funded by the Edinburgh Futures Institute which will be based in the old hospital building from 2021. You can learn more about the EFI here:


The RIE Oral History project aims to capture memories from people who used the building when it was a hospital. The nature of people’s encounters with the building varied so greatly and hopefully this will be reflected in the project through a diverse range of participants. Potential interviewees could include members of staff (medical, support services, administration, etc.), former patients, volunteers and other healthcare professionals associated with the hospital.

Personal experiences provide evidence and a personal view that we cannot gain from paper records alone. These interviews will help future researchers understand the relationship people had, and still have, with the building.

LHB1/68/16 - David Bryce Plans for New Infirmary - Overlap on drawing on 81 of 21 June 1875 showing section of clock tower with chimneys.

Over the past couple of months I have been working hard to ensure that all my paperwork is in order, and that I have completed any relevant training. I spent some time listening to recordings that were taken as part of the pilot for this project which allowed me to think of potential questions for interviewees. I also attended an ‘Introduction to Oral History’ training day at the Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde, which covered everything from project planning to consent and copyright. It also gave me a chance to practice interviewing and being interviewed. This exercise highlighted the importance of selecting your questions carefully so as to avoid leading and closed questions!

Aerial view of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh site at Lauriston Place


The next stage is the interviews themselves, and my diary for the next couple of months is already filling up with scheduled interviews and I hope to increase that number over the coming weeks – so I need you to spread the word!

The interviews will be relaxed and can be conducted individually or in groups. If you are interested in taking part, or know somebody who might be, please contact lhsa@ed.ac.uk or 0131 650 3392 for further information.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Getting to grips with prosthetics!


This week, we hear from from Employ.ed on Campus intern, Carmen Hesketh, following her first week with LHSA. Employ.ed on Campus is a scheme for current students of the University of Edinburgh offering paid work experience in a variety of exciting projects throughout the University, including here in the Centre for Research Collections!

My name is Carmen and I will be working for the next 10 weeks on the collection of bio-engineer David Gow here at Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA).

Carmen hard at work already!
I am a third year History student here at the University of Edinburgh, and since I began my studies I have tried my best to be actively involved in heritage work in this beautiful city. I began volunteering with LHSA at the end of my first year and have worked on a variety of projects, including recording Victorian mental health patient cases from the Royal Edinburgh Hospital; cataloguing oral history projects relating to HIV and AIDS in Edinburgh during the 1980s; and cataloguing collections related to family planning and sex education in the 1970s. These projects, along with my volunteering role at The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh where I transcribed oral history interviews of prominent post-war doctors, has made me realise that I am passionate about medical and disability history, which has influenced my academic study. For example, next year I plan on writing my undergraduate dissertation on how museum collections represent the history of HIV and AIDS in Scotland. This is one of the many reasons why I am delighted to have the chance to do this internship with LHSA - I am getting the chance to develop my knowledge on a research area that I am extremely enthusiastic about, as well as having the opportunity to create an online resource to make such an important topic known to the public. 

As well as working with medical collections, I have also been involved in heritage outreach through my job at The Museum on the Mound where I give presentations on the history of money to schoolchildren and through a previous internship helping to coordinate Doors Open Days, Scotland’s largest free architectural heritage festival. Heritage education is something that I have always loved being a part of and I think that this internship will be fantastic in helping me further improve my skills in this area.

Over the next few weeks, I will be examining the collection donated to LHSA by Dr David Gow. This collection contains records from the Bio-engineering Centre, which was a department located in the Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital, opened in the 1960s in order to cater to the needs of children who suffered from severe limb deficiencies as a result of the Thalidomide tragedy. Initially, bio-engineers at the Centre, led by Dr (later Professor) David Simpson, were pioneers in pneumatic powered prostheses – they created prostheses which were powered by gas and air because batteries at the time were too heavy to be used as a power source for artificial limbs. They served around 60 children who needed upper limb prostheses and supported them until young adulthood, and as well as creating upper limb prostheses. They also invented aids which could support patients in their daily lives: the most notable example being the Simpson-Edinburgh Low Pressure Airbed which was developed in the 1970s and effectively prevented pressure sores for those with disabilities.

Professor Simpson's Low Pressure Air-bed
Dr David Gow was appointed Director of the Centre in 1986, and shifted from pneumatic powered devices to develop electrically powered prostheses because he believed that they were more user-friendly and convenient. In 1998, Dr Gow and his team created and fitted the first complete electrically powered arm prosthesis, known as the Edinburgh Modular Arm System (EMAS), and in 2007, he created the i-limb, the first prosthetic hand to have independently powered articulating fingers. It will be my job to create an online resource about a variety of themes relating to the collection, cataloguing items relating to the collection on the University’s online database, and interview Dr David Gow himself to create an oral history testimony about his contribution to the field.


Examples of prostheses (note finger sleeves on top image) created by the Bio-engineering Centre
Since researching the collection, I have been fascinated by how much impact the Bio-engineering Centre in Edinburgh has had on patients all over the world, and how Edinburgh bio-engineers have actively created equipment as well as prostheses to make life easier for their patients. I am also excited to meet Dr Gow personally and have the opportunity to interview him about his thought processes and inspirations for creating a device that is so invaluable to its users. Overall, I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks have in store!

Friday, 26 April 2019

Beyond the conventions

This week, Archivist Louise looks at some 'alternative' themes in LHSA collections...

Even after five years as archivist at LHSA, I'm always reminded of how varied our collections actually are - either by working with something I have not physically seen before, or re-visiting material for a researcher. In the past month or so, I've been helping an Edinburgh postgraduate student explore one of our collections for a report she's writing. This was, in fact, the first collection I ever catalogued at LHSA, that of osteopath, iridologist (stay with me!) and medical masseuse, Amelia Nyasa Laws. The student's project involves exploring Amelia's papers, and looking into the reasons behind how they're described and stored.

Until I looked at the papers again, I'd forgotten what a diverse career Amelia had. Daughter of Scottish medical missionary Robert Laws, Amelia (1886 - 1978) worked as a medical masseuse in France during the First World War, took her degree in medicine in Edinburgh, and trained in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in orthopaedics, later travelling to Europe to add to her orthopaedic and physiotherapy training. Amelia eventually became an osteopath as her main profession (a therapist who aims to detect, prevent and treat medical problems by moving and stretching muscles and joints). However, her interests were wide and varied, as shown by the archive that we hold for her.

For example, she was a follower of iridology in the 1920s and 1930s, a (now discredited) field that claimed to diagnose medical problems through the study in changes in the iris of the eye:

A 1926 pamphlet on iridolgy. Amelia's cosmopolitan education meant that she collected resources in multiple languages.
From her training in the 1920s to her retirement in the 1970s, Amelia had a demonstrable interest in other (what we'd now call) 'alternative therapies'. Amelia's pamphlet collection shows her actively exploring and collecting material on a number of issues. For example, in the 1960s, she looked into 'Rolfing'  (a system of manipulation invented by American Ida Rolf):


A pamphlet on 'Rolfing', which traditionally structured treatment around ten sessions.

... and 'naturopathy', which believes in stimulating the body's responses through diet, herbs, sun and fresh air:


Thanks to Amelia's research into alternative medicine, we also have pamphlets on homeopathy:


.. and this 1936 pamphlet on the benefits of comfrey:


It's clear from the letters that came with some of this literature that a lot of the time Amelia was asking for information from manufacturers and organisations in response to particular patient conditions, as shown on pamphlets she collected in the 1940s into possible cancer treatments:


It's been really interesting to look back at this varied material - I love finding things that you wouldn't necessarily expect to come across in an archive like ours! The debates on 'alternative medicine' these days are ongoing, heated and understandably emotive - and I'm sure we all have our views on them! But whatever side of the fence you happen to fall upon, it's fascinating to look back through the ways in which these therapies were promoted and disseminated, and to find out about an individual like Amelia who was looking genuinely far and wide to find solutions to her patients' needs.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Creative Writing and Archive Records!

In this week's post Access Officer Louise shares her experience of hosting a creative writing workshop...


Last month, as part of the Festival of Creative Learning, I helped run a creative writing workshop that invited students to learn about the history of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and to write poems and short stories using archival records as their inspiration.

I was fortunate enough to be joined on the day by Ellen and Natalie from the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing and publishing society PublishED. Ellen and Natalie were a tremendous help and took over when it came to the creative aspect of the day by producing a series of tasks designed to get everyone in the creative mindset.

We started the day by asking groups to list words that they associate with asylums and had an open discussion about what they perceived to be the treatment of mental illness in the Victorian era.





I then provided some context and discussed what we can learn about the conditions and treatment of patients within the Royal Edinburgh Hospital from the collection held within our archive.

We looked at a variety of records including photographs of the building interiors/exteriors, patient photographs, letters and clinical records as well as extracts from the patient magazine the Morningside Mirror.






To kick start the creativity Ellen and Natalie led two short exercises designed to get everyone writing (including myself and our recent intern Emma). The first of these was to write a bad poem in one minute using nouns picked out from the following picture showing a hallway within Craig House:




A number of people were brave enough to share with the rest of the group what they had written (and it was at that point that I realised that only I had written a truly bad poem).

As well as sharing out loud with the group some people were also kind enough to leave their writing behind and I have included some extracts below:

Others shoot and hit, yet I am always falling short,
not cut out for any sport which follows precise lines.
I take comfort in the ice the brilliance of crystals
perched against one another, stacked close,
like cell mates joined in the suspended flow.



Asylum Photographer

Stand still. Please allow me to capture you,
Let me take those harrowed eyes, that sour frown,
Move not, lest you blur in time and in mind,
Suppress those shivers; please dull down your twitch,
Talk not, the shutter retains no sound




My friends,
The time has come. The days are short and the odds are long but let me be clear: there will be no miracles here. We have long been told that change is coming, long held out for change that is coming, long put faith in change forthcoming. Change will come when we create it. A system built to subdue and divide us cannot stand if we do.
They want to keep us hidden because we do not conform to their definition of “normal”. Because we do not conform to what is acceptable. Who are they? The rich? The educated? The powerful? Why should they be the gatekeepers of society, of what is normal, of what is allowed.



The feedback from the event was very positive and as it was my first writing event I asked people to comment on what worked and what didn’t work so that we can put on a similar and even better event in the future!