Archiving the past and present: an interview with Sarah Lowry, oral history project officer

At the RCP Innovation in Medicine 2018 Conference, 25–26 June, there will be a chance to listen to recordings and to contribute to the collection presented at our history zone at the conference. Speaking with RCP's oral history project officer, we learn more about the College's oral history archive that reveals information about the lives of key figures in the history of healthcare, the RCP and changes in society.

The collection is also available online via the RCP library and Oxford Brookes University.

Photograph of a women standing in front of a computer terminal
Professor Jane Dacre DBE FRCP c1988

Among the many fascinating items in the RCP’s archives there is an extensive collection of oral history recordings. In the 1980s the college worked with Oxford Brookes University to record over 140 interviews with prominent members and fellows and more recently staff and volunteers have completed an additional 70 interviews through the Voices of Medicine project. Oral history brings the personal perspective, the individual experiences of those who have worked as physicians during the 20th and 21st centuries and their reflections on the many changes in medicine that they have witnessed.

As part of our diverse programme of events throughout 2018 celebrating our 500th birthday on 23 September 2018, at our Innovation In Medicine Conference, 25–26 June 2018, there is a chance for delegates to visit the History Zone, curated by our Library, Archives and Museums (LAMS) team. Besides a chance to explore and contribute to medicinal objects and curiosities from our collection, there is also the opportunity to listen and add to a selection of fascinating oral stories from RCP's treasured oral histories archive. 

We'll be inviting delegates to share their stories as well as building on our rich heritage, so our conference is a chance to embed contemporary physician's voices as part of RCP's story. 

We speak with Sarah Lowry, oral history project officer, to find out more about the collection and the conference. 

Black and white photographic portrait of a woman
Dr Ewa Raglan as a medical student in Poland in the 1960s

How did the oral history collection come about?

We have two oral history collections at the RCP, the Medical Sciences Video Archive – which came out of a partnership project with Oxford Brookes University established in the 1980s, and is housed at Oxford Brookes with copies held at the college – and Voices of Medicine, a project to collect audio interviews with fellows and members that was established in 2014 at the request of the RCP officers.

What are the challenges in assembling and preserving such a collection?

Oral history collections are hardly ever fully representative. We have to keep in mind the huge number of people who have worked as physicians over the period that we are covering and the tiny proportion that we are able to interview. We can only ever say that we are reflecting the opinions and memories of individuals rather than the profession as a whole.

The interviews are long, averaging 3–6 hours, so it can be a problem for participants to find the time, especially if they are still working. We are very grateful both to the interviewees and volunteer interviewers for giving up their free time to support the work.

In terms of preservation the main issue with collections involving audio and video is ensuring that you keep up to date with recording formats. A few years ago the earlier interviews from the Medical Sciences Video Archive, which were on VHS, were digitised, which was vital in ensuring their ongoing accessibility. We also have issues with storage capacity. The current interviews are recorded in .wav format, which takes up an enormous amount of space on the server. I have to have a special folder to store the recordings so I don’t annoy my LAMS colleagues by using up all our shared space!

Black and white photograph of a group of men wearing white dresses performing on stage in a comedy show
Colin Berry (bottom right) performing in the Great Ormond Street Christmas Show in the 1960s

Who has been chosen for curated selection at the conference and why have they been specifically chosen?

In selecting extracts for the conference I tried to highlight the intimate, subjective, emotional responses of those associated with the RCP to medical innovations. The joy of saving lives through renal dialysis, the wonder of using penicillin for the very first time and the relief when modern imaging equipment rendered previously used, painful investigative processes obsolete. There is still pain, of course, in recalling patients that could not be saved, but the majority of extracts illustrate the amazing advances made in the field during living memory.

Other stories highlight the social changes that have occurred in, for example, the relationship between doctors and patients and attitudes towards overseas graduates. It wasn’t easy to select only 13 clips as so many of those associated with the RCP have lived remarkable lives.

It was really difficult to select the extracts as there are so many good stories in the collection. Oral history is all about adding a personal, intimate perspective to collections, so I focused on memories that gave a very individual experience of some of the major developments in the medical world.

Dr Norman Jones, former RCP treasurer talks incredibly movingly about establishing the first renal dialysis unit at St Thomas’ Hospital and the joy of being able to save patients who would previously have died from kidney failure, Charles Fletcher about administering the very first doses of penicillin to a policeman who was dying of an infection contracted from a rose thorn scratch. These stories show what developments that we all know about actually meant to patients and physicians and the excitement generated when they first became available.

There is a strong legacy aspect to this project since many of the interviewees are now deceased. What is the historical value of this project in terms of the healthcare sector?

The majority of people interviewed for the Medical Sciences Video Archive have now died. Most of the interviewees from the more recent Voices of Medicine project are thankfully still with us. In terms of the MSVA collection it is wonderful to be able to hear the voices of some of the great stalwarts of medical science and their remarkable work. One of my favourite interviews from this collection is with Archibald Cochrane. The stories of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the work he did in prisoner of war camps in WW2 are fascinating and inspiring. We also have a recording of Cicely Saunders talking about establishing the hospice movement. It’s exciting to hear first person accounts of major events and reminds us of the work, dedication and sacrifices behind the medical advances that we benefit from today.

Black and and white photograph of a man
Douglas Ronald Seaton, Anthony Seaton's father

It’s our 500th anniversary this year. How do these oral histories relate to our 500th year and looking to the future?

The oral histories can only cover a small part of the RCP’s long history. Luckily the institution has an incredibly rich archive full of items that reflect its 500 year existence. The recordings complement some of these in a small way by giving a personal perspective on college history, as I said above. It’s a terrible shame that we cannot go back in time and interview fellows from centuries past. I did once have a colleague who offered to help me speak to people from beyond the grave, so maybe I should go back to them and ask for their help with this!

Do you have a favourite interview? Which one and why?

No, I can’t have a favourite interview – that would be like picking a favourite child. I have heard stories in many of the interviews that will stay with me forever. It’s been hugely uplifting, especially in the current world climate, to hear the memories of people who have dedicated their lives to easing the sufferings of humanity. I’m sure we all know someone who simply wouldn’t be here without the major innovations in medical science that have been made since WW2. Recording the stories of people’s personal involvement in these has been a privilege. I couldn’t pick a favourite one.

Joyce Yung, communications adviser was speaking to Sarah Lowry, oral history project officer.

At the conference we will be inviting delegates to make personal contributions to the archives through sharing objects and stories that they think should be preserved. Please come and visit us in the History Zone to see and hear what we already have and to save a little piece of your own personal history for the future. 


Sarah Lowry ,
Oral history project officer

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