The latest work on the papers of Professor William Blair-Bell has seen the beginning of an exciting phase of the project – the cataloguing of previously unlisted material. My librarian colleagues could barely disguise their amusement at my delight on opening four boxes of unsorted, unpackaged, slightly dirty, papers and notebooks, and as I got to work adding descriptions of these to the existing finding aid, my enthusiasm was amply rewarded!
The contents of the first two boxes revealed volumes of manuscript notes, made by Professor Blair-Bell over a century ago. Case books collated during his period of general practice in Wallasey, near Liverpool between 1896 and 1912 reveal the extent and nature of his practice. The case notes include patient details, symptoms and treatment, and cover a variety of illnesses, such as fractures, obstructions, varicose veins, appendicitis, peritonitis and carcinoma. Correspondence, photographs, x-rays and notes are inserted in the pages: one photograph shows disturbing images of a baby affected by congenital lymphangioma, while a loose patient record made in January at the beginning of the 1900s is evidence of Blair-Bell’s sense of humour, made out in the name of ‘Little Demon’ and showing her usual diet to be of ‘Plum Pudding’!
Books of lecture notes (1890-1904), made by Blair-Bill during his medical studies and his early practitioner days, cover an impressive array of subjects, from zoology to surgical pathology to diseases of the eye to psychology, accompanied by a histology sketch book and providing a good insight to William Blair-Bell, the student. There is also a volume of manuscript midwifery and gynaecology lecture notes, annotated with the name of Dr Martin Bodian (1910-1963): these lectures are unlikely to have been given by Blair-Bell, but Bodian’s links with the British Empire Cancer Campaign during the 1950s and his work as a pathologist at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children during the 1940s and 1950s may explain the link.
Among this material is a very small, slightly dilapidated notebook, probably dated about 1900, which appears to have been Blair-Bell’s pocket ‘aide memoir’. It contains notes by Blair-Bell which seem to be shopping lists and other lists, together with a loose page of poems (not in his hand), one of which seems to be a rather crude medical students’ verse! Another notebook of unknown date contains notes by Blair-Bell on ‘Specific infectious diseases’, with colourful diagrams of the nervous system in relation to lesions and disease.
Probably of more relevance to the RCOG Library are the two separate catalogues to the library of Professor Blair-Bell. One of the catalogues was created by Blair-Bell himself, between 1907 and 1916, in two volumes entitled ‘Old Book Collection’, and divided into ‘medical’ and ‘general’. In this catalogue, he provides details of the books in the collection, giving information of the various editions published, financial value where known, and physical condition. The other catalogue appears to have been commissioned by RCOG President, Sir Eardley Holland, in 1956, possibly on behalf of the Blair-Bell Estate. This catalogue is a typed list of books belonging to Blair-Bell, mostly medical in nature, but including volumes of poetry by Matthew Prior (1759) and works by George Herbert (1674) and Aristotle. The copy of ‘Eucharius Rosslin’s Rosengarten’ (1580) currently in the Rare Book Collection of the RCOG is listed in this catalogue, together with details of certificates and diplomas issued to Blair-Bell between 1912 and 1934. This latter material is so indicative of William Blair-Bell’s legacy to the College, and explains the emphasis given to the importance of a College library during the early years of the RCOG.
One of the treasures of this particular cache of material is the volume of annotated and mounted physiological tracings obtained by Blair-Bell with his fellow student, G H Lansdowne, during his medical studies at King’s College London in 1893. The volume is annotated with the inscription ‘won Prof Halliburton’s Prize for Advanced Practical Physiology, King’s, March ’93’, and the tracings are magnificent examples of experiments on muscle and heart reflexes.
As this project continues, I expect to find, and to be able to highlight, many more unexpected treasures from the Blair-Bell papers.
By Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist