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The treasure trove of wartime medical photos found in the archives

a black and white photo of a figure in white gown taking a swab from an open-mouthed woman

A nurse in a white gown and cap taking a throat swab from a patient, at Middlesex Hospital, Mortimer Street, Greater London Authority, W1 11 Aug 1941 © Historic England Archive MED01/01/1968

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.

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.

a photo of a group of nurses grouped around a mannequin

A sister tutor instructing student nurses bandaging the torso of a mannequin, at Atkinson Morley’s Convalescent Hospital, Copse Hill, Greater London Authority 05 Oct 1940 © Historic England Archive MED01/01/1037

a photo of a doctor and three nurses in a room with a man in a bath

A patient in a saline bath, whilst staff work in the background, at the Queen Victoria Hospital, Holtye Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex. 20 Dec 1940.© Historic England Archive med01_01_1338

a girl seated with opthalmic devices fitted to her eyes

A young girl sitting at a synoptiscope in the Orthoptics Department, King Edward VII Memorial Children’s Hospital, Ladywood, Birmingham 21 October 1941. © Historic England Archive

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.

a photo of two men filling glass jars with blood

Two men transferring blood from small bottles into large bottles in the Army Blood Supply Depot at Southmead Hospital, City Of Bristol 9 August 1940. © Historic England Archive

a photo of three female and one male nurse on exercise bikes

Nurses on stationary cycles in gym at the new Albert Dock Hospital, Alnwick Road, Greater London Authority 22 Sep 1938. © Historic England Archive

a photo of a nurse with a female mannequin in a dressing gown propped up in a bed

A student nurse using a jointed model patient to practise assisting a patient to get out of bed, in the Preliminary Training School at Central Middlesex County Hospital 30 Jul 1941. © Historic England Archive

a photo of a man loading a tray of rubber gloves into a furnace

A man placing surgeon’s rubber gloves on moulds into an oven in a factory producing rubber gloves 20 Jan 1939. © Historic England Archive

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.

a photo of a nurse with a baby sat in a large weighing scale

A nurse weighing a baby on a set of balance scales, at the St Matthew’s Hospital Nursery School at Tyseley, Grimms Hill, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire 08 Apr 1941. © Historic England Archive

a photo of nurses in gas masks attending a person a bed

Nurses in protective clothing practising gas decontamination of a patient at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Trumpington Street, Cambridge 03 Sep 1941. © Historic England Archive

a photo of a female nurse liftin the arms of a man on a bench in front of a mirror

A physiotherapist directing remedial exercises whilst standing on a stool behind a patient seated in front of a mirror, at Wharncliffe Emergency Hospital, Worrall Road, Wadsley, Sheffield. 5 October 1942. © Historic England Archive

a black and white photo of nurses in uniform on a merry go round

Nurses waving from the merry-go-round at a fair in Soho Square, London. 4 July 1939. © Historic England Archive

“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.”

a black and white photo of nurses pushing prams up a driveway toward a house

Four nurses pushing prams in single file along the driveway of the St Matthew’s Hospital Nursery School at Tyseley, Grimms Hill, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire 08 Apr 1941. © Historic England Archive

a photo of two nurses using an iron lung with a mannequin lying prone within the contraption

Two nurses operating an iron lung at an exhibition in Charing Cross underground station 08 May 1939. © Historic England Archive

a black and white photo of a large group of midwives on bicycles

A group of district nurses with bicycles leaving the Willesden District Nursing Association, 15 Park Avenue, Willesden Green, Greater London Authority 13 Oct 1939. © Historic England Archive

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.

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