Whispers from the archive

Forty-five years ago Lord Platt and two of his colleagues sat down for a meeting over lunch in the RCP’s Heberden Room. Not a particularly exciting or unusual event, you’d be right in thinking, except that this meeting was being recorded. The voices of the three men whisper from the archive and reveal information about their lives, the college and the society of the day that it would be almost impossible to elicit from other sources.

The Royal College of Physicians’ oral history collection is a rich, but under-used resource. Lord Moran, Lord Rosenheim and Ina Cook also made recordings and there is a collection of video interviews filmed in partnership with Oxford Brookes in the 1980s. The participants are almost all now dead, legends of RCP memory. The recordings ensure that their voices, as well as their work and their portraits, survive.

Oral history, ‘tells us less about events than about their meaning…. Interviews often reveal unknown events or unknown factors about known events’.

We all know about the discovery of penicillin. Many also know of the role that RCP fellow Charles Fletcher (1911–1995) played in its development. But because somebody in 1986 thought to record his memories, anyone, now, can hear him tell the amazing story of how he administered the first ever dose of penicillin, to a policeman dying of an infected scratch from a rose thorn. Of how the dying patient rallied dramatically, was sitting up, eating, was on the verge of recovery. Of how his doctors desperately tried to filter the meagre supply of the drug from his urine to continue the course, and of how they eventually failed. Fletcher’s voice reflects the wonder, hope and despair that the team must have felt at the time.

Listen to the extract online, by clicking here.

The RCP archives are full of such memories. Archibald Cochrane (1909–1988) tells us of his pioneering work on randomized control trials, but he also weeps as he recalls how he tried to care for inhabitants of a prisoner of war camp and begged the Nazis to stop using his medical orderlies as target practice. Sir Raymond Hoffenberg (1923–2007) tells us of his fight against apartheid in South Africa. Lord Moran recounts how he brought together Winston Churchill and the war time cabinet at a splendid lunch at the Savoy in 1944 to show their support for the establishment of the NHS.

Often the stories demonstrate how much society has changed. Ina Cook speaks of her fight to be accepted into the male dominated world of the college, to the extent that she wasn’t even allowed to hang her coat up in the hall. Two former fellows discuss how, if you have a personal secretary it’s acceptable to employ a woman, but if you want a company or organisational secretary you, ‘really need a man.’ You would be sacked for such sentiments today, but these men were simply reflecting the prevailing beliefs of their time. Oral history brings them to us in stark relief.

Building on the work of former Harveian Librarian, Charles Newman (1900–1989), and the Oxford Brookes project, we are now adding to our oral history archives. Over the past few months we have recorded stories of fellows’ experiences of Changi prison in Singapore, of caring for casualties of the Dunkirk evacuation, of trialling chemotherapy treatments for leukaemia, of establishing the first renal dialysis units and of London smogs and Nightingale wards. Future generations will be able hear, not just read, of RCP fellows’ pioneering work, their struggles and successes.

Gradually we will be putting all recordings, both new and old, online. In the meantime listen to the extracts below and come to the archive to have a listen to more. You will discover a whole new dimension to some of the characters of RCP history.

Sarah Lowry, oral history project officer

The interviews with Charles Fletcher, Archibald Cochrane and Sir Raymond Hoffenberg were recorded as part of the Medical Sciences Video Archive project run by Oxford Brookes University in partnership with Royal College of Physicians. You can access them online through the Oxford Brookes University Radar portal. Interviews from the recent RCP oral history project can be accessed through the Heritage library catalogue. Search under Key Collections and Oral History: Voices of Medicine.

Quotation from: Portelli A. What Makes Oral History Different?. In: Perks R. and Thomson A. (eds), The Oral History Reader. London: Routledge, 1998.

To view the audio transcriptions used in this post, please click here.

Sarah Lowry ,
Oral history project officer

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