Ever considered using archives for creative writing? How about medical archives?

IMAG0074As an archivist working with a large collection of medical archives it strikes me that they are a rich source of raw information and a great opportunity to delve into the lives of many of our forebears.  In some instances there may be extensive and colourful descriptions of particular events, places, or individuals, and in others short but telling accounts that offer bold intimations towards a life once lived providing the foundations for a creative interpretation.

One might argue that the instances of ill-health described in some of these records illustrate the basic equality and vulnerability between all human beings, with the resultant approaches to treating the ill revealing the social attitudes and scientific thoughts of a particular society. Accounts of patient care, child birth, accidents, and epidemics related within the items that make up the Manchester Medical Manuscripts Collection are no different in this sense but invariably approach the problem from the perspective of male medical professionals. Here the lives of many ordinary people, the poor, the disabled, and women, whilst hinted at go largely untold despite the brief insights allowing a larger picture to form in the imagination of the reader.

In 1845 one medical student describes witnessing the case of 29 year old James Turner, a mill worker, whose arm was torn off by a factory machine known as the devil and who walked himself to the operating theatre for a procedure without any anaesthetic (MMM/10/1). A doctor practising at a similar time in the city kept a directory of his patients with small glimpses at their living conditions; ‘cellar under no.50 Canal Street’ (MMM/4/2/1/3). We also see accounts of labours attended where women are singled out for being single but no further information is given, details of cases of women confined to hospital for being ‘hysteric’, doctors preserving the body parts of their deceased patients to display in their museums (sometimes accompanied by intricate illustrations), debates over the morality of the caesarean section, and detailed explanations of curious treatments and surgical procedures.

MMM/18/2 – Betty Stincklin, suffering from tumour of the femur & eventually found her way into the anatomical museum of J. A. Ransome

Much of the description in all instances is largely medical informed by the doctor’s theories of the human body and social norms, and even where accounts go on for many pages the patient experience and individual perspective is neglected. More general records, such as the annual reports of the Medical Officer of Health (MMC/12/1/1 – for Manchester), which were produced by local authorities from the late 19th century onwards, give consistent data on matters such as infant mortality, instances of infectious disease, local nuisances, and the institutional provision of care in the area, and as such add meat to the bones of a construct of life in a particular locale.

It would be great to hear the thoughts of any writers or aspiring writers on the potential of such material, or how you have used it in the past.

3 comments on “Ever considered using archives for creative writing? How about medical archives?

  1. I’ve written a biographical novel about one of the early patients of psychoanalysis, and am currently writing about a second such patient. Both of them were diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. The first one, the case of Anna O, was described in Studies on Hysteria (Freud and Breuer) but there isn’t all that much medical information available about my current heroine, so I’d be very interested in accessing the files you mention about the women hospitalised for being ‘hysteric’. The problem, of course, is that the medical histories only provide the doctors’ perspective. The trick when it comes to writing creatively about those cases is to conjure up the patient’s perspective. I discuss a number of issues relating to this in my writing blog:

  2. Pingback: Ever considered using archives for creative writing? How about medical archives? – Collections

  3. Pingback: Five Questions for… Karen Rushton | medhumlab

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