Fantastic Finds for Friday: Some ‘TLC’ for Medical Letters

Our Fantastic Find this week is more of a rediscovery and
rejuvenation! During one of my little cataloguing sprees a month or
so ago, I found the papers of Robert Sydenham Fancourt Barnes in
the Archive, feeling more than a little bit sorry for themselves!
They consist of letters sent to Fancourt Barnes by medical
contemporaries between 1858 and 1892, discussing all sorts of
professional and personal matters, and including such prestigious
names as Sir Thomas Spencer Wells, Sir Alexander Simpson and Sir
William McCormac. Although there was no background information as
to how the College came by these letters, they were obviously
bought from a bookseller or at auction, and had at some point been
pasted onto card and displayed for the autographs, rather than the
content. A letter from Joseph Lister had clearly been sold off
separately – it’s empty board showing signs of the letter being
roughly torn away, and a pencil note of ‘£12, Sir Joseph Lister’
the only testament to a collection broken up and dispersed.

Letters of Fancourt Barnes, pre-conservation
Letters of Fancourt Barnes, pre-conservation

Robert Fancourt Barnes (1849-1908) was an English physician (the son of
the celebrated obstetrician Robert Barnes) who studied obstetrics
and was physician to the Royal Maternity Charity and Chelsea
Hospital for Women, as well as being a respected gynaecologist. The
matters under discussion in these letters range from methods of
warding off puerperal fever, operations for ruptured perineum and
hysterectomy, and published guidance for midwives, as well as
advice about his role with the Royal Maternity Charity. The most
interesting letter for me was one from the French scientist,
Etienne-Jules Marey discussing the recent successful crossing of
the Channel by the swimmer Captain Matthew Webb. Professor Marey
was a doctor and physiologist, and invented in 1888, a method of
producing a series of successive images of a moving body on the
same negative in order to be able to study its exact position in
space at determined moments, which he called ‘chronophotographie’,
and which was one of the earliest forms of moving film. Marey’s
letter (written in French) marvels at the feat of the English
maritime office, Matthew Webb (1848-1883), who in August 1875
became the first successful swimmer across the English Channel, in
a crossing which took him 21 hours and 45 minutes. Professor Marey,
writing in November 1875, was obviously taken with the physical
endurance required for this achievement. Captain Webb tragically
died in July 1883 in a whirlpool at the foot of Niagara Falls.

Captain Matthew Webb, photographed by Elliot & Fry, taken from Dictionary of National Biography
Captain Matthew Webb, photographed by Elliot & Fry, taken from Dictionary of National Biography

As mentioned, the letters were all pasted onto card, which has been
disintegrating rapidly and threatening the preservation of the
letters – some of which could not be read completely due to being
stuck down. A wonderful conservator was found to give the letters
some TLC, and the results were returned to the Archive this week.
The letters will now be fit for display and research for another
hundred years of more!

Penny Hutchins, College Archivist


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