We’ve now reached the end of the cataloguing phase of the project, and I thought it would be nice to conclude with some brief final thoughts on what I have seen over the last few months.
The archives here at the Royal London Hospital contain a wealth of information on this disease, of which I have only been able to share a small amount. Over the course of the project I’ve looked at case notes, hospital minutes, photographs, letters, printed leaflets and all manner of other materials, which have revealed the extent of tuberculosis in Britain, and the desperation to find a cure. Thousands of case notes, each detailing the symptoms, diagnosis, and progression of disease in the patient, show how prevalent tuberculosis was. The list of medications given in each of these rarely amounts to anything more effective than cod liver oil and other solutions to ease symptoms, giving a sense of the futility of the battle against tuberculosis without either surgical means or antibiotics. The archives also include letters from people who claim to have found a brilliant cure (and if you pay them upfront, they might tell you what it is! – RLHBH/A/14), as well as dissertations and statistical notebooks attempting a more rigorous approach to curing the disease.
The archives also show something of the social stigma of TB, caused partly through fear of catching the disease, and partly because sufferers were seen as weak. The Frimley Sanatorium Almoner’s Letters (RLHBH/AL/3) are a great record of some of the attitudes towards tuberculosis in British society throughout the early twentieth century. This is a series of correspondence between patients and the almoner (forerunners to social workers) at the hospital, written in the years following their treatment. They reveal a lot about how the patients progressed; some patients reported perfect health for years after treatment and lived to a ripe old age, while others repeatedly fell ill to TB and other chest diseases. But some of the letters also reveal a stigma; quite a few patients sent stern requests that neither letters nor health visitors should be sent to them, while others communicated only through their mothers or other close relatives (one woman begged not to be written to directly, as she feared that her husband would divorce her if he found out she had been treated in a sanatorium!). This series contains many fascinating insights into society at the time, with patients’ writing to request charity, seeking medical advice, or simply providing a complete update on their lives since they last wrote.
The final thing I’ve taken away from this project, which has occurred to me time and time again as I’ve looked at these records, is how lucky and privileged we are compared to even 70 years ago. The archives here include countless photographs and case notes from patients of all ages suffering from various forms of tuberculosis; this includes clinical photographs of children suffering from scrofula, who have gaping holes in their necks following surgery (RLHPP/BAI/5), as well as the letters and case notes of older patients, who may only be in their teens or twenties, who suffered for years before dying from tuberculosis. Procedures such as Artificial Pneumothorax or Thoracoplasty are awful-sounding answers to a problem that nowadays can mostly be solved by tablets. While tuberculosis remains a serious problem elsewhere in the world, the fact that in Britain it barely even registers as a concern shows how lucky we are here, today.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog as much as I have enjoyed writing it! Although the cataloguing phase is over, the conservation of the records is continuing apace, and our project conservator will be posting here on her progress. If you have any enquiries about records at the Royal London Hospital, tuberculosis-related or otherwise, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.