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Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Medical Science in the Archive: the MSVA

In January 2018, Viviane Quirke gave the introductory talk for the launch of the digitised Medical Sciences Video Archive. The MSVA is a precious resource to historians of medicine carrying out research on topics as diverse as epidemiology, intensive care, obstetrics, anaesthetics, and palliative care. It also provides scholars interested in oral history with special insights into the culture and practice of British medical science in the second half of the twentieth century.

In 1985, the MSVA was founded by a collaborative agreement between Oxford Polytechnic and the Royal College of Physicians (with Prof. Max Blythe and Sir Gordon Wolstenholme as principal interviewers). After 1992, other national and international links were developed, including with the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Anaesthetists, leading to interviews with 11 important anaesthetists collected between 1995 and 1998. Then, in 1999 a Joint project was created between the School of Biological and Molecular Sciences and the School of Humanities at Oxford Brookes University (to transcribe and index interviews, to improve access to the collection). The work was carried out by Dr Carol Beadle and Susannah Wright, and was funded by a grant from the Wellcome Trust held by Professor Anne Digby of the School of Humanities. Finally, in 2016, Stuart Hunt of Learning Resources at Oxford Brookes University submitted a successful bid to Wellcome for a Research Resources award to fund the digitisation of the collection (now on RADAR). 

So what is it? It is a collection of filmed interviews with 130 'leading figures in the world of medical and clinical scienc' talking about their lives and careers. These are, perhaps unsurprisingly, mostly men. However there are also some notable women, for example Professor Dorothy Hodgkin and Dame Cicely Saunders, in fields as varied as x-ray crystallography and palliative care (and many more), but also relating to policy areas such as health services administration, health education and health promotion, and science funding.

What is it for? In short: an oral history of the biomedical sciences. Using a definition from the Oral History Society, 'Oral history is the recording of people's memories, experiences and opinions.' Hence, it can be described as:
       A living history of everyone's unique life experiences
       An opportunity for those people who have been 'hidden from history' to have their voice heard
       A rare chance to talk about and record history face-to-face
       A source of new insights and perspectives that may challenge our view of the past.”


To illustrate this point, in her presentation, Viviane showed a clip of Max Blythe’s interview with Norman Heatley in Oxford on 28 Oct. 1987. Who was Norman Heatley? As Sir Henry Harris put it succinctly in 1998: 'Without Fleming, no Chain or Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.' Yet while Fleming, Florey and Chain jointly received the Nobel Prize for their work in 1945, Heatley's contribution was not fully recognized for another 45 years. It was only in 1990 that he was awarded the unusual distinction of an honorary Doctorate of Medicine from Oxford University,  the first given to a non-medic in Oxford's 800-year history!

The clip chosen by Viviane helped to demonstrate how oral history on the one hand, and video archives such as the MSVA on the other, could add to the existing literature on well known episodes in the history of the biomedical sciences like the discovery of penicillin, for they are:
  • rich with details that are not normally included in scientific publications,
  •  including personal and emotional details, in Heatley’s case presented with composure,
  • reflecting conciliation with a past  which in some ways was painful,
  • while at the same time presenting an image of oneself  that is:
    • culturally recognisable (the precise, matter-of-fact scientist)
    • the product of an ‘inner script’ (with memory conforming to what has been often repeated and has become an accepted narrative)

The Brookes Special Collections house many other treasures, including the papers of Jane Doe (the professional name of Nettie 'Ada' Lewis - pages from one of her scrapbooks are shown here), who worked as a journalist in the 1920s and 1930s. These papers are currently being used by a Brookes History MA student, Hannah Greiving, for her dissertation on ‘Anxiety, Anger and Agency: The Change in the Emotions of British Women after World War I (1917-1930’, supervised by Professor Joanne Begiato. 

If you are interested in finding out more about the Special Collections, and about the MA in History or History of Medicine at Brookes, why not join us for Open Morning on 13th of April?

 Viviane Quirke
Senior Lecturer in Modern History and History of Medicine

Image credits:
Dr Norman Heatley OBE (1911-2004) as I have been given personal permission to use it (courtesy of the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology)
Jane Doe scrapbook (courtesy Oxford Brookes University Library)

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Christina-Rauscher-Straße: The Story Behind a Street Name

By Johannes Dillinger

The city of Horb in southwest Germany has named a street in honour of Christina Rauscher, a woman who helped to end the witch hunts in the entire region. Brookes historian Professor Johannes Dillinger discovered Christina’s extraordinary stories in the archives and brought it to the attention of the public. 

In the early modern period, the city of Horb belonged to the county of Hohenberg. Hohenberg was just one of many petty principalities ruled by the Habsburg archduke of the Tyrol, even though it was more than 200 miles away from Tyrol’s seat of government in Innsbruck and a number of non-Habsburg states separated both territories. The archducal government in Innsbruck found it very difficult to exercise any kind of control over the far away and self-assured Hohenberg towns, including Horb.

The Luziferturm, Horb am Neckar, where witches were incarcerated

Left to their own devices, the local elites of Horb and the other Hohenberg towns orchestrated one of the worst witch hunts in southwest Germany: at least 438 witch trials between the 16th and 18th centuries. This was a staggeringly high number compared to the approximately 3,000 households in the territory. Only 7.5 per cent of the accused were men, while 67 per cent of the male and 85 per cent of the female defendants suffered the death penalty. (As a comparison, about 1500 witches were executed in all of Britain.) While the peculiar political situation enabled local elites to conduct mass witch hunts, the driving force behind the persecution were the so-called common people. Crop failure had let to the breakdown of viniculture in the region which in turn caused a complete re-structuring of the regional economy. Many people lost their livelihoods and social trust eroded quickly. In the words of a contemporary: The region that had been “known as the lard pit became the hunger pit.”

Christina Rauscher came from a very affluent family in Horb. Her father, who rather ruthlessly tried to improve his already outstandingly good economic position, engaged in protracted conflicts with the city council. It had tried to force Christina's father to close the brewery the successful merchant had opened as a side business because it had. bought such massive amounts of barley that it drove up the price for bread. Time and again he managed to make the Innsbruck government intervene on his behalf. Christina supported her father in these conflicts. From 1598 onwards, she was rumoured to be a witch. Several alleged witches denounced her as an accomplice. For a number of years, Christina avoided a formal accusation. She sued the local bailiff for slander and threatened the Horb town council with further interventions by the Innsbruck government.

What followed was totally illegal even by the standards of the 17th century. In 1604 Christina was surprised in her home by a mob, captured and incarcerated in Horb’s town gaol. Her husband Johann Rauscher, who remained loyal throughout the trial, did his best to free her, bringing official documents from spiritual and secular authorities that demanded the immediate release of his wife. The town council which tried to defend its authority because it wanted to make an example of Christina, ignored all attempts at intervention. She remained in gaol for almost a year and was tortured repeatedly. At the time of her arrest she had been seven months pregnant. She lost her child under the torture.  However, Christina never confessed. When she was finally released she was, as a contemporary source had it, “as weak as a small child.”

After regaining her strength Christina began a legal battle against Horb town council and the bailiff that lasted for the rest of her life. She managed to alert the Innsbruck government to the blatant miscarriages of justice that went on in Hohenberg witch trials. In 1607, the entire town council of Horb was ousted at the command of the government. The bailiff lost his position. A new law was passed that protected basic rights of witchcraft suspects. Two year later, Christina was given a private audience with the archduke. He authorized her to lead an official investigation into the miscarriages of justice in Horb – an unprecedented honour for a woman. The mass witch hunts in Horb and Hohenberg ended abruptly. The great wave of witch hunts that struck many other German territories in the 1620s did not reach the Hohenberg region anymore.

There can be no doubt that the alleged witch, Christina Rauscher, was instrumental in bringing to an end witch hunts in the entire region. Almost 400 years after Christina’s death in 1618, her hometown named a street after her.

Professor Dillinger has written a monograph that deals with the Hohenberg witch hunts and Christina Rauscher

And you can find out more about:
Modern Horb at
& Early Modern Horb at

Picture Credit:
By Schlaier (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Trump one year on: how did we get here?

Recently there has been much commentary about the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States and his first year in office, a key theme of which has been whether it represents a victory for a resurgent populism in the West. Typically, the historical comparisons offered to help understand the Trump phenomenon are Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s – particularly given Trump’s re-running of Reagan’s mission to “Make America Great Again” – and Richard Nixon’s presidency (1969-74), which claimed to represent a “silent majority” of Americans (although it collapsed, and ultimately ended, amid national scandal).  However, as an historian of contemporary North America, it is increasingly clear that the most apt historical comparison for Trump is not with Reagan of the 1980s, but instead the Reagan of the 1960s and 1970s. 

Trump’s 2016 election victory is most comparable with Reagan’s political breakthrough when he became Governor of California in 1966. Just as Trump’s national political presence arguably began with his contribution to the “Birther movement” reaction to Barack Obama’s presidency, Reagan’s arrival on the national scene was as a supporter for the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid in 1964. Reagan was consequently able to take advantage of his own personal “name recognition”, the Goldwater movement, and limited Republican talent in California, to ensure that he became his party’s nominee for Governor in 1964. Similarly, Trump’s celebrity, arguable authenticity, and the frustrations of the Republican base with its establishment politicians, meant that the former Apprentice host captured America’s Grand Old Party.

 Crucially, both Reagan in 1964 and Trump in 2016, despite their fame and fortunes, claimed to be citizen politicians who wanted to represent the “people” and challenge the political status-quo. Reagan’s campaign saw the former actor emerge as a master of electioneering in a television age, just as Trump utilised Twitter to speak directly to his supporters and antagonise his opponents. Despite the best efforts of their respective opponents – Governor Pat Brown for Reagan, Secretary Hillary Clinton for Trump – the political establishment could not make anything ‘stick’ sufficiently to stop the Republicans emerging victorious. 

Upon taking office in Sacramento, Reagan’s team did not have any idea about what a Governor should do and simply assumed that competent businessmen could organise State government. Those who were willing to work for a government salary found themselves to be an inexperienced and conservative executive branch working with – or against – an experienced, liberal Democrat controlled Californian legislature. While Trump’s frustrations with Congress could worsen after the upcoming mid-terms, he has certainly seen some of his domestic agenda falter, despite his own party controlling both Houses of Congress. Moreover, in an effort to ensure that his administration worked more effectively, the importance of the likes of Steve Bannon have been replaced by the effective drafting of Generals into key roles at the White House.

As Governor of California, Reagan was unable to act on his conservative ideals. For instance, he signed an extremely liberal abortion law, raised taxes and favoured environmental issues ahead over economic ones. Yet he left office in 1975 as the pre-eminent conservative in America – his rhetoric was more powerful than the reality of his record. Despite an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to usurp President Gerald Ford’s nomination by the Republican Party for the 1976 presidential election, Reagan was the darling of his party’s national convention. Likewise, Trump is yet to break ground on The Wall, but his supporters are still with him. Rather than contempt, familiarity ostensibly breeds success: ideas and image matter more than reality, especially if the messenger of those ideas is speaking for “the people” – or at least some of the people, who are prepared to back their chosen “insider” who claims to be fighting an outsider’s good fight against an establishment that allegedly no longer represents the interests of ordinary people. Given that many of Reagan’s supporters enthusiastically supported his tentative campaign for the presidency in 1968, just two years into his tenure as Governor, it can hardly be surprising that Trump has simply not stopped campaigning and recently appointed a Chair for his re-election campaign, ignoring all other obvious and potential banana skins. Trump 2020, here we come.       

For further reading, please see:

James H. Broussard, Ronald Reagan: Champion of Conservative America (London: Routledge), 2015, chapters 3, 4 and 5.
Iwan Morgan, Reagan: American Icon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), chapters 4, 5 and 6.

Dr James Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in History and teaches on the American history modules at Oxford Brookes University. He has written books about the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and U.S. Presidents and Northern Ireland.