Blair-Bell 9: The importance of context!

Following the Easter break, I returned to this cataloguing project – and to this blog! Confession time: as I started the next phase of the project, which is revisiting the legacy catalogue records of the files in series S10, I couldn’t help losing some of my previous enthusiasm amid the routine correspondence of the Liverpool Medical Research Organisation. With the files consisting mainly of the correspondence of the organisation’s secretary, Edward Carey, I struggled to find anything that could form the basis of interesting content for this blog post.

Then I realised that I needed to step back and see this collection in its wider context – in terms of its ‘uniqueness’ among other surviving records of the LMRO. A check of the online guides to other repositories and archives (in particular using the services of the Archives Hub archive network) revealed that the archive of the University of Liverpool holds memoranda and reports of the activities of the LMRO and its predecessor, the Liverpool Cancer Committee. Nowhere else could I find evidence of administrative records of the organisation, such as are held here under the name of Professor Blair-Bell. At last – my spark of interest! The humdrum discussions about salaries, staff, invoices and equipment are made richer by the significance they give to Blair-Bell’s role as Director and his growing detachment as he became increasingly embroiled in the foundation of the new College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

You might question the value of recataloguing these files – is it a waste of precious cataloguing time, when the files already possessed title and date details? I believe that, in this case, the answer is definitely ‘no’. Previous cataloguing had made the assumption that these collections of papers were those of Professor Blair-Bell. Indeed, this was the way in which they had been described by the donors. It appears though, that these are very clearly the papers of the LMRO itself, rather than those of its Director. I feel that this fact gives an added bonus to the RCOG’s Archive – yet another collection to reflect Blair-Bell’s distinguished and multifaceted career, as already shown in the records of the foundation of the College and of the Gynaecological Visiting Society, Blair-Bell’s other ‘baby’.

The first eight files of this series covered by this post are dated from 1926 to 1932 – an intensely busy period for Blair-Bell, with the establishment of the British College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1929, his role as its first President, and a thriving private practice in Wallasey. For him, it was also a period punctuated by ill health, particularly in 1926 and 1928, when Edward Carey took over many of Blair-Bell’s responsibilities for the LMRO. File S10/6 contains a good summary of the programme of the LMRO in 1929, and the ‘large book containing issued papers by the scientific staff’ mentioned in the programme resulted in the publication ‘Some Aspects of the Cancer Problem: an account of the research by the University of Liverpool from 1905, continued by the Liverpool Medical Research Organisation’ edited by Blair-Bell in 1930.

I shall leave you with a leaflet for an Electrico-Surgical Unit manufactured by Bovie-Cushing, described as ‘giving three types of currents, for dehydration, cutting and coagulation, with controls for varying power and depth of work…As described in Surgery, Gynaecology & Obstetrics, December 1928’. This interesting piece of surgical machinery, which looks remarkably like a television cabinet, cost £300 in 1929, and was delivered free of charge by surgical instrument manufacturers, Down Bros Ltd, from St Thomas’s Street, London. I wonder if any of these instruments have survived?

Bovie-Cushing Electro-Surgical Machine, 1928


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