Friday, 6 June 2008

Medical History of British India Project

Have you heard of a bowel gang? Or why a woman was living in a rum-barrel in 1878? Do you wonder how vaccines are made? What was it like to be in the army in India in the last quarter of the 19th century? What did medical students study in Nagpur and how many passed their exams?

The answers to all these questions are contained in the Medical History of British India collection of the India Papers. The project involves microfilming the books and then digitising the film to produce images which can be viewed online. Each page of the 126 volumes will be available free of charge. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust and forms Phase 2 of the web feature Disease prevention and Public Health Medical History of British India.
The items are rare, dating from ca1850 to ca1950 and are of interest to medical historians and genealogists as well as to the casual reader. The content is legible and makes for fascinating reading, not only from a medical perspective, but also from a social and geographical one. There are many tables of detailed information, plus drawings, photographs and maps. Although most volumes are in a report format, they offer an absorbing glimpse into a world long gone, and yet many of the issues resonate today. Click on the images to see a cholera map of India and patients suffering from kala azar.

As project manager and metadata creator I shall be sharing some of my finds each week in this blog. From hemp to hospitals, from monkeys to malaria, from research to rabies and from cholera to quinine, there is much to explore in this compelling collection.

Peer review

It’s surprising to learn that full sets of the House of Lords sessional papers are quite rare things; our collection is in fact only around 90% complete. A bit of history first: Lords records date from 1497, though these weren’t methodically filed until the 17th century. Printed Lords papers weren’t produced until the 18th century (though the Journal began its printed life in 1767). The disastrous fire of 1834 destroyed the Palace of Westminster, and with it a number of Lords records, though a major part of these were saved by a quick-thinking clerk throwing bundles of them out of a window into the courtyard below!

In the early 70s a project involving the British Museum (now the British Library), Board of Trade, the House of Lords Library, the Treasury, Home Office, Bodleian Library and NLS assembled as many sets of Lords papers as possible. The British Library and the House of Lords Library have complete sets; NLS has around 90%.

It is often assumed that there is little (if anything) in the Lords papers that isn’t in the Commons papers – this is not so. Some material does not feature at all in the Commons papers; for example, peers have always been able to introduce a Bill in the Lords – even if rejected, these records give an interesting insight into the concerns and influences of peers through the years. Commons and Lords can set up separate committees to examine the same subject – the evidence gathered and sources used by each may be quite different. Also, sometimes fuller versions of Commons committees may be published in the Lords papers rather than in the Commons. [1]

So, the moral of this story is, of course, don’t forget about the Lords papers! They are a huge resource, and can help to complete your research.

[1] Mallaber, Kenneth A. The House of Lords sessional papers.