Blair-Bell 7: Dirt and disarray!

This blog covers the end of this first stage in providing a comprehensive catalogue to the papers of Professor William Blair-Bell held here at the RCOG. This part of the project looked at material originally catalogued and referenced S1, and is composed of records bought by the College at auction in 1986. Catalogue descriptions consisted of only a title and date, while four of the boxes had no kind of description or packaging, and have benefitted from some provisional cleaning and flattening out and repackaging.

Copyright of the RCOG

As the dirt increased among the pages, many being uncovered for the first time since they had been trundled away into archive boxes and placed sheepishly on the shelves, so did the delight in finding records dating back a century or more. A notebook with ‘W B Bell, Rossall, Chemistry’ on the fly-leaf indicated that Professor Blair-Bell clung to some of the teachings of his schooldays at Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire, completing the chemistry notes which he had started as a schoolboy with research notes of his own as a medical student at King’s College Hospital. Am I the only one to think it is incredible to see the teenage writing of our first President?

The notebooks and reams of papers among the last boxes of material relate to Professor Blair-Bell’s research work. A volume entitled ‘Note Book kept for Dr Blair Bell’ contains details of tests on hospital patients and cats between 1911 and 1912, analysing urine samples and fluid from ovarian cysts, while another looks at cases of fibrin ferment and fibrinogen and shows the result of removal of ovaries and thyroid from cats (1912-1913). This work is all documented and brought together in Blair-Bell’s book ‘The Sex Complex’, published in 1916, which provided a consideration of the factors leading to the production and maintenance of the normal characteristics and functions of women.

Later notes kept between 1921 and 1925 include records of treatment for cancer using lead solutions, with details of attempts to prepare a lead solution and observations made during laboratory tests. Blair-Bell’s research into the use of lead in the treatment of cancer was extensive between 1921 and 1931, and was aided by the establishment of the Liverpool Medical Research Organisation, and although the experiments were ultimately viewed as a failure, his work on epidemiological factors as causes of cancer, and the importance of prevention clinics, marks him out as pioneer in a steadily growing line of research and therapy.

‘…the action of lead on cancer is a chemical nature. The lead, or rather the lead ion, is said to enter into combination with the phosphatids, particularly with locathin, which occurs abundantly in cancer cells, and the compound formed is said to arrest the development of the cells.’ So wrote Blair-Bell during the 1920s, following this up with a statistical analysis of cancer mortality among lead workers in Paris which somehow fails to impress the reader with the power of lead as a cure for cancer!

I worked on maintaining and improving the condition of this material, and also tried to bring notes and research papers back into the original order, using guess works to match notepaper. However, the biggest difficulty came at the end of the project. Do I impose some kind of logical arrangement on the series or leave it as one long list? Do I pander to my own sense of neatness, arguing that an arrangement will make the catalogue easier to understand for users? And if so, what kind of arrangement should it be? In time periods? By subject?

Initial thoughts are to group the papers into loose headings of ‘personal papers’, ‘cancer treatment’, and ‘case books ’and so on. It will be interesting to see how the other collections of papers will correspond with these groupings. Watch this space for more treats to be discovered!

By Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist


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