Friday, 28 March 2014

Serving the Army in Scotland

My time as cataloguing intern on the Dott case note project is nearing an end with only two weeks to go. The majority of my time has been spent cataloguing. However as part of the internship I have also been involved in a number of other non-Dott related activities which have helped to broaden my knowledge of working both in university setting and in a medical archive, including participation in archive and conservation volunteer taster days, attendance at seminars, visits to other archives and training in reading room invigilation.

Working with the case notes from the Brain Injuries Unit at Bangour General Emergency Medical Service Hospital has been fascinating and cataloguing individual patient case  files has been a great experience. I have been able to gain skills in analysing these highly detailed medical records and honing in on the information required for capture in the catalogue; and have also gained valuable experience and confidence cataloguing using Encoded Archival Description (EAD) and indexing using medical subject headings. One of the many aspects I have found interesting while working with this collection has been realising the hugely important role Dott played as Consultant in Neurosurgery to the Army in Scotland. As well as diagnosing and treating the large number of military personnel sent to Bangour he also had to determine his patient’s suitability for continued service in the armed forces. Dott had to be rigorous in his assessments and on several occasions is quite clear that, despite recovering from the injury or illness which resulted in their admittance to the Brain Injuries Unit, discharge from military service and a return to their civilian occupation would be advisable and in the best interests of either the military or the patient and often both.
Although the information recorded in the catalogue does not include the patients civilian occupation, this and the other additional information about the patients including their background and military career provided in the case notes to supplement their medical details, has been another fascinating aspect of working with these records. This additional information gives an insight into how the war affected the lives of the patients, many of whom were conscripted and were performing very different roles from their civilian life, providing a valuable record of social history within their medical records.

As well as British military personnel the collection contains case notes of several men from the Polish Air Forces. The Polish Air Force was evacuated from occupied Poland to France in 1939, where units were re-established and the Polish airmen served alongside the French. When France was invaded in 1940 many of the Polish units went to Britain and served with the RAF, forming successful Polish RAF squadrons that operated under RAF command.  One particular case I have come across was that of a young Polish airman who was suffering crippling back pain that was preventing him flying. He was operated on by Dott and was flying again within a few weeks of his operation. He wrote to Dott expressing his gratitude for his care and treatment saying, ‘only because of you am I able to serve in the Air Force again.’ Also included in his case file were several Christmas cards to Dott. While it is a bit late/early for Christmas, I thought I would share these images of two of the cards sent by this Polish airman. One is a Polish Air Forces postcard which shows the fin flash insignia used by the Polish Air Force on the tail of the plane and the other is a greetings cards with the inscription, ‘Bog sie rodzi’ (God is being born), which is the title of a Polish Christmas Carol.


Christmas cards from LHB40 CC/2/PR3.644

The continued relationship between Dott and his patients is evident in many of the files, with patients writing to express their thanks, sending updates on their medical condition or asking for advice; and Dott often writing to request information about their progress after treatment. This correspondence displays Dott’s concern for his patients and their continued welfare long after their discharge from his care, with exchanges sometimes spanning 15 years or more.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working with this collection and although I have only catalogued a (very!) small proportion of the vast c.26,650 case files I feel very lucky to had the opportunity to get to know these records and learn about Professor Dott’s career and in particular his and his team's valuable work during the Second World War.

Friday, 21 March 2014

A new accession

Last week, we were delighted to pick up a new accession from the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion. It consisted of 12 operation and anaesthetic books and 8 registers of blind and partially sighted people, which date from approximately the 1950s to 2000. The image shows a selection of the volumes.

These records complement a number of LHSA’s existing collections including the records of RNIB Edinburgh and Lothians (Acc 13/017), case notes relating to the eye department of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and records from the Eye, Ear and Throat Infirmary (LHB32). The Eye Infirmary of Edinburgh was originally founded in 1834, separately from the existing Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Cases relating to the ear and throat were additionally served here from 1883 and the Eye Infirmary moved to the Eye Dispensary in Cambridge Street in 1922. During this period, some eye cases were also treated at the Royal Infirmary in Lauriston Place as LHSA holds some eye ward books from this time. On the formation of the NHS in 1948, the Eye, Ear and Throat Infirmary as it had become came under the control of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Associated Hospitals Board. From 1949, in patients were only treated at the Royal Infirmary, however eye out patients continued to be treated at the Cambridge Street premises between 1949 and 1969, until the completion of the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion in 1969 when all ophthalmic services moved to this building. The new accession, therefore, covers the period when services for eye treatment were in transition towards the Princess Alexandra Eye Pavilion. We hope that the records will help to provide our enquirers with a more complete picture of eye care in Edinburgh over the years.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Exciting times!

Less of a blog post, more of an announcement this week as we see two new jobs in the LHSA team advertised. We’re delighted to be recruiting for Wellcome Trust funded Project Cataloguing Archivist posts to carry out the archival side of two projects that are already underway.

The first is an 8-month post to join Emily, our Project Conservator, working on our fantastic UNESCO-awarded HIV/AIDS collections. 'Policies, Postcards and Prophylactics: a project to catalogue and conserve LHSA's UNESCO-awarded HIV/AIDS collections (1983-2010)’ began in January this year and Emily has blogged about her work, so check out previous posts to get a flavour of the collections and some of the conservation issues involved. So far she has been treating collections that have already been catalogued so while Emily continues to repair and re-house the material, the Project Cataloguing Archivist will focus on cataloguing those collections that have yet to be listed to item level. We’re excited to be recruiting for this crucial final piece in the project puzzle!

The second is a 12-month position, within a project that was started in September 2013 by, our then Project Archivist, Louise: 'Cataloguing Norman Dott’s neurosurgical case notes (1920-1960)’. When our Archivist Laura took a year’s leave last month, Louise was seconded to fill her role, which means we are now looking for someone to take up cataloguing where Louise left off. Dott’s case notes are a fascinating resource, and this project aims to make them more accessible for research, whilst ensuring that patient confidentiality remains the highest priority. There is more information about this project at:

To find out more about the posts, and the online application system, please search Edinburgh University’s job page (, for vacancy reference number 027628 for the 8-month post, and 027629 for the 12-month post.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Plastic Fantastic?! Conservation of Modern Objects in the HIV/AIDS Collections

This week our project conservator, Emily Hick, discusses the problems with plastics in archival collections:
Over the past five weeks I have been working on one part of the HIV/AIDS collections which documents the ‘Take Care’ Campaign in Edinburgh and the Lothians. This campaign began in the late 1980s and aimed to raise awareness among all members of the community about the causes of HIV/AIDS and also to promote safer sex with the message “take care of the one you love”. This was achieved through high profile events and gigs, as well as educational programmes and providing free sexual health advice and condoms. This diverse collection contains a wide range of materials; from modern paper materials such as reports, educational packs and administrative files to plastic audio visual objects and modern rubber/latex items such as balloons and condoms.

Many people assume that modern collections such as this do not require conservation, however this is not the case, and there are already items in this collection that are severely degraded. For example, balloon 1 in the photograph below has degraded and become extremely brittle, resulting in it becoming fragmented when flexed during storage. The conservation of modern plastic materials is complex as although the objects may look similar, they may not be formed of the same materials and depending on the original composition of the plastic object, it can degrade in different ways. For example, these four balloons (1 – 4) were stored together in the same environment, but have degraded in completely different ways. Balloon 1 has become brittle and fragmented, balloon 2 has become tacky and stuck to a business card it was stored with, balloon 3 has hardened and balloon 4 is still relatively flexible.
Four balloons stored in the same environment that have degraded in different ways
Deterioration of plastics such as this can be caused by either chemical or physical factors. Chemical degradation can be caused by the interaction of plastics with light, heat, oxygen or water. These factors provide the energy and the environment to promote destructive chemical processes. Physical factors include degradation caused handling of the object, for example the incorrect handling and repeated bending of a plastic doll may result in stress fractures or breakages. Physical degradation can also be caused by the migration of additives from the plastic object. Plastics contain additives called plasticizers that increase the flexibility of the object. However as the object ages, the plasticizers evaporate causing it to become more brittle, which has occured in balloon 1. This can be particularly problematic if the plasticizers are absorbed by another material in close contact with the object. The photograph below shows a window sticker that has degraded, releasing plasticizers which have in turn been absorbed by the plastic pocket it was previously stored in, resulting in deformation of the pocket.  

Plasticizers released by the window sticker have been absorbed by the plastic pocket causing it to deform

Plastics objects not only form part of this collection, but plastics such as ring binders and poly-pockets are also used to store many paper materials. These materials also degrade and can adversely affect the papers contained within them. Store-bought ring binders can be especially problematic for archival collections as they are commonly formed from PVC (polyvinylchloride). This type of plastic emits hydrochloric acid over time which can be readily absorbed by paper materials and cause them to degrade. As such all paper materials have been removed from these folders, but reference samples have been kept separately so that the original look and function of the materials can be recreated if necessary.

The conservation of the plastic items in the collections has particularly caught my interest as this is a subject area that I had little prior knowledge of and did not expect to be treating when I qualified as a paper conservator! The production of plastics has risen dramatically over the past 50 years, from 5 million tonnes in the 1950s to almost 100 million tonnes in early 2000. In 1982, the production of plastic surpassed that of steel and as such that year has been dubbed the beginning of the ‘Plastic Age’. Therefore, the amount of plastics found in archives is growing and although research about this subject matter is relatively small, it is a fascinating area, and I believe that the issues surrounding the conservation of this material will become more important in the future.