A fascinating collection of more than 4,000 photographs depicting wartime healthcare uncovered in the Historic England Archive is giving up its secrets after more than 70 years
Staff at Historic England’s Archive in Swindon recently discovered 4,050 black and white photographic prints documenting healthcare in Britain between 1938 and 1943.
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Capturing hospital staff, patients, procedures and practices, the images provide an extraordinary insight into medical and nursing practices during the Second World War, and immediately before the foundation of the National Health Service.
Thanks to grant funding from the Wellcome Trust 2,100 images have now been digitised as part of a year-long project to conserve, catalogue and digitise the entire collection and make it accessible to a wide audience via the Historic England website.
The photographs were taken by the London-based Topical Press Agency, but how and when they were acquired by the Archive remains a mystery. Recording a time of transition and rapid development for healthcare in the UK, the photos bring to life a fascinating period of medical history.
They record improvised wartime hospital wards, blood donation and transfusion, infection control, treatment of burns and early plastic surgery, alongside nurses in training and relaxing in their time off.
Each photograph is accompanied by a typed description which gives extensive background information including date, location and details of equipment and procedure.
Many descriptions also include the names of the doctors and nurses shown as well as captions that capture the zeitgeist of the era, such as “the cares of house-keeping and raising a family can play havoc with a mother’s looks and bodily shapeliness.”
Among the photos are insights into the groundbreaking work of the pioneering surgeon Archibald McIndoe who ran the Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead where thousands of patients who had suffered burns were treated. The medical techniques he used on servicemen were pioneering and went on to form the basis of burns treatment worldwide.
Other wartime depictions include gas mask-wearing nurses practising decontamination at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, student nurses training with the help of a variety of mannequins and instructional models, as well as the work of hospital nurseries and their care of babies and infants.
“The Historic England Archive is full of countless gems but the Topical Press Agency images are particularly striking,” said Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s Chief Executive. “They have the potential to expand our knowledge of wartime medical practice and revolutionary treatments and help us delve deeper into the history of healthcare.”
Abigail Coats, Archive Cataloguing Officer at Historic England, said that working with the collection every day had been “fascinating and a real joy.”
“The photographs reveal health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change,” she added, “but they also show staff having fun and unwinding after a long working day. You can see just how far some medical developments have come, but also what has stayed largely unchanged. I’m very proud to be a part of bringing this unique collection back to life and that we’re able to share this fantastic resource with the public.”
The Historic England Archive is a national archive of the historic environment, with many major collections covering the architecture, archaeology and social history of England. The archives largely date from the mid-19th century onwards. They relate to the historic environment in the widest sense, including architectural and archaeological archives and aerial photography.
The medical collection can be viewed at HistoricEngland.org.uk/medical
Historic England has also produced resources for secondary school teachers to help students explore the history of medicine as we mark 70 years of the National Health Service in July.