Another course of mercury

Shortly after finishing my previous blog post about the trials and tribulations of early career researchers and their seemingly futile hunt for that first academic job, I was offered just such a job. In October I shall be taking up a Junior Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford.

Early in the new year I had resigned myself to an indeterminate hiatus from formal academic life and work. I felt that, with the completion of my PhD, my research into the history of venereal diseases – a topic to which I have, strangely, become somewhat attached – had concluded. However, I now find myself pulling out my volumes of research notes, returning to the archives, and preparing for another metaphorical course of mercury (or salvarsan and penicillin as the case may be).

I am very much looking forward to developing my new research project, and acquiring additional experience supervising undergraduate and postgraduate students. The prospect of self-directed research is daunting but there will be research fellows in New College, the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, and the Faculty of History upon whom I can rely for stimulating discussion, academic advice, and professional support.

I shall be blogging about this project and my collaborative work with fellow researchers so stay tuned for more (and more, and more) posts about venereal diseases, shifts in health policy, the establishment of important healthcare infrastructure, developing clinical practices, and changing patient experiences.

My JRF project

The historical narrative of twentieth-century healthcare is one of supposed discontinuity between older draconian provisions and the emergence in 1948 of an unprecedented and enlightened system of state-supported care.

Over the next three years I aim to show that the NHS was not such a radically new venture but one of continuity that built upon existing state-supported provisions. I aim to do this by examining the universally and freely-available diagnostic and therapeutic facilities for venereal diseases following the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases in 1916. The Royal Commission’s unprecedented series of recommendations for the treatment of venereal diseases was based upon the principle of universal and freely-available healthcare, while rejecting traditional calls for notification and regulation. Medical technologies such as the diagnostic Wassermann reaction and the German-manufactured drug, salvarsan (and its British-made substitutes), became available on an unprecedented scale through the establishment of a national network of clinics designed for the treatment of venereal diseases. These clinics were the first universally-available healthcare system in the UK that was free at the point of use. Their establishment provided the foundations for what would become the NHS. Yet these important changes, especially in England, have not formed the subject of extended and detailed historical study.*

'The easy girlfriend' poster, England, 1943-1944

My JRF project undertakes just such a multi-layered study. It will show how, in the decades preceding and immediately following the formation of the NHS, healthcare was slowly consolidated, centralised, and systematised across the interconnected sites of medical education, general practice, hospital practice, and the treatment clinics.

In so doing my project seeks to facilitate a critical evaluation of how clinical practice and healthcare provisions have evolved, and to question the assumptions that underpin that evolution. By establishing a richer sense of diversity in past healthcare provisions (and the accessibility of these past provisions), my project aims to identify more sophisticated ways of interpreting good health practices, along with a wider range of options in current debate over the direction of healthcare in the UK. I aim to provide a more balanced perspective on current debate, demonstrating that it is not a simple question of saving the NHS or dismantling it. Rather, I hope to show that healthcare has become increasingly complex over the last century, and that there is no reason to believe that the state cannot continue diversifying its healthcare provisions according to changing public need.

So what am I doing in the interim?

Well, I am currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) at the University of Leeds, with particular expertise in the history of modern medicine, medical education, health policy, and the history of science.

As part of this Fellowship I have been assisting with the development of funding applications and volunteering with the Museum for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. I am also contributing to the rich research culture of the Centre for HPS by informally supporting the work of postgraduate students in the broad field of the history of medicine, and actively participating in the Centre’s seminar series.

This Fellowship has required a dexterity of work practices. In any given day I could be working with museum objects, writing up a funding application for a visiting professor, and conducting my own research. It has taught me how to adapt and integrate my own research interests into the wider research foci of a new department. It has taught me how to positively develop constructive professional relationships, it has allowed me to meet a superb group of research staff and students, and it has led to the development of some wonderful friendships.

I shall be writing a longer blog post about my activities in the Centre for HPS and I hope that this forthcoming post helps other ECRs to realize that there are possibilities beyond traditional teaching and research routes. I hope it will show that, in the absence of a steady source of (paid) academic employment, it is necessary to take the bull by the horns and proactively establish your own research path.

*Roger Davidson’s work on the social history of venereal diseases in Scotland is a notable exception. See Roger Davidson, Dangerous Liaisons: A Social History of Venereal Disease in Twentieth-Century Scotland (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000).

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