Friday, 7 December 2018

Western General Hospital Oral Histories

In this month’s blog we will be hearing from two of our volunteers who have been cataloguing and part transcribing our
Western General Hospital oral histories as part of the hospitals 150th anniversary!

Western General Hospital, Main Entrance and Driveway, LHSA photographic collection

First let’s hear from Mila who discusses working with oral histories and what she enjoyed most about the experience…

My name is Mila Daskalova, and I am a former student of the University of Edinburgh. I graduated from my MSc in Book History and Material Culture in 2017, and currently I am doing a PhD at the University of Strathclyde, exploring the history of periodicals published by patients in nineteenth-century mental institutions. I’ve been volunteering at the LHSA since September this year.

As a student, I’ve worked with various historical sources. I’ve deciphered impossible handwriting and marginal notes in dusty books, frantically opened tab after tab of digitised documents in my Internet browser and sifted through thick volumes of archival records in search of a single familiar name. I’d dealt little with oral histories because most of the people whose stories I’ve been interested in had lived and died before the invention of sound recording devices. Helping with the archiving of the recordings held at the LHSA has been a fascinating experience.

The first oral history I worked with was an interview with Dr Wilma Jack whose experience at the NHS Cancer Services and the Edinburgh Breast Unit make her a particularly valuable source of information about the history of the Western General Hospital and the development of cancer treatment in Edinburgh and Scotland. Prior to the project, I had little knowledge of the institution and its role in the history of cancer services. In the process of cataloguing the interview, I learned a lot, but this first formal encounter with oral histories was much more than another lesson in history.

There is something about oral history that is often missing in written historical narratives: oral histories are emphatically personal. Even when the speaker tries to speak generally, the listener is always aware that the information is rooted in personal experience. I believe that is what makes oral histories particularly powerful and interesting. When historians write history, they often try to detach themselves from the events they describe, even if they happened in their lifetime. Oral histories demand speakers to position themselves in the events, in history.

The most interesting moments of Wilma’s interview are those where she offers her personal reflections on issues such as when she talks about her ways of dealing with the frequent encounters with pain, fear and loss in the cancer services. Listening to her talk about her experience and views makes me curious about all the people who have passed through that place over the 150 years since its establishment in 1868. What would they have to say about witnessing or experiencing illness or the building where they worked or went with the hope of recovery? It’s amazing to think about the possibility of someone listening to Wilma’s voice 150 years from now.

Perhaps my favourite bit is her reflection on her patient notes. Throughout her career she developed a system of keeping track of patients’ medical histories by writing down any relevant information on small reference cards. She says that, despite the computerisation of medical practice in the past years, she still relies on her own handwritten notes. As someone who is also reluctant to let go of old-school note-taking, I could relate to her preference for paper over the screen.

Next is Ellen who was interested to discover the history that links the Western General and Poland…

llustration of the Paderewski Hospital, Edinburgh, 1940s (GD28/8/1/1)

Cataloguing and transcribing the oral histories of doctors and nurses who have worked at the Western General Hospital has been an exciting project. As an Edinburgh native, the Western has been my local hospital since I was a child and listening to the anecdotes of the staff who worked there has made me realise how little I knew about the hospital and the work conducted there. In particular, I was interested in hearing about the work of Polish doctors during WW2 in the Paderewski hospital. I had not realised there was such strong links between Poland and the Edinburgh University Medical School, or indeed the Western General. There was an entire Polish school of medicine established in 1941 at Edinburgh University, which taught over 336 students out of the Paderewski wing at the Western General. Although the school closed in 1949, its legacy will continue to be discussed and re-discovered (as I did) throughout the future.

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