Friday, 21 November 2014

‘Thought is the Seed of Action’… Neurosurgery on screen

This week's blog is from Liz, our Project Cataloguing Archivist on our Wellcome Trust -unded case note cataloguing project.
A letter I came across this week, while continuing with my cataloguing of Norman Dott’s neurosurgical case notes, led me to looking into a ground-breaking  (and somewhat controversial) BBC television series, ‘Your Life in Their Hands’. The letter was from a former patient of Dott’s who had been successfully treated by him and his team in the Department of Surgical Neurology at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in 1954. She opens her letter by referring to his appearance on the BBC series broadcast on 11 March 1958. Dott’s reply is also contained in the case note, ‘How kind it was for you to write on the occasion of our Departmental Broadcast. It was quite interesting to consider what would interest people and the split-second technical side of it was quite an experience’.

The series featured ten programmes each looking at a different medical condition and how it was treated. Each of the programmes came from different hospitals around Great Britain, and in Dott’s case the focus was the treatment of head injuries in the Department of Surgical Neurology at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and Bangour Brain Injuries Unit. Other episodes featured the treatment of conditions including respiratory paralysis following poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever and mitral stenosis. The broadcasts were presented by Dr Charles Fletcher and aimed to provide clear information to the public about medical conditions and the modern techniques being used to treat them. What made the programmes so notable was the inclusion of footage of surgical operations taking place.

BBC filming of an operation at the Western General Hospital, GD28/8/2/10
The episode featuring Dott was entitled ‘Thought is the Seed of Action – a look at neurosurgery from the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh’.  Fortunately we have a copy of the transcript for the programme in our collections, as well as a VHS recording (which I look forward to watching at a later date). The broadcast opens with Dr Fletcher introducing the subject and then handing over to Professor Dott who describes the Royal Infirmary as a general hospital that ‘deals with all the ills that flesh is heir to’ and he makes sure to credit all the staff at the Hospital with the valuable work done there, ‘Nor would our work be at all possible without our nurses and our large background staff’. Several members of the Surgical Neurology team also feature in the broadcast including Dr F J Gillingham, Dr Kate Herman, and Mr Philip Harris, with Mr Harris describing the brain as a ‘complex organ’ which can be compared to ‘the BBC and a vast telephone exchange. Messages are constantly coming into it – and are being received, interpreted, recorded as memories and messages are constantly being sent out to other parts of the body’. The programme looked at how patients were assessed, treated and their rehabilitation, with a focus on the treatment of a young man who sustained a head injury while playing football. As a result of his injury he developed a blood clot which is shown being operated on by Dott and his team. The programme signs off with a warning to motorcyclists about the importance of wearing crash helmets. The inclusion of Dott’s Department in the series was testament to the important work they were carrying out. 

Transcript of 'Your Life in Their Hands'

‘Your Life in Their Hands’ was met with a mixed response, on the whole well received by the public and press, with the exception of the British Medical Journal, who were opposed to the series and who published several articles about it in 1958. They believed the series would heighten public fears of illness and increase hypochondriasis. The discussion even made it into the House of Commons with a question being raised on 26 February 1958 about the potential ill effect the programmes may have on the public. Despite the initial unease felt  at the candid and graphic depictions of medical treatment in 1958, ‘Your Life in Their Hands’ was a huge success with further series being made over the last 50 years and the presence of medical documentaries on television becoming commonplace now.

For more information see:
M. Essex-Lopresti; “The 50th anniversary of ‘Your Life in Their Hands”, J. Vis. Commun. Med., vol 31 no.1, March 2008:36-42

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