A large proportion of the earliest thesis we have digitised from the turn of the century are medical thesis. However, they little resemble the modern medical thesis being produced today. They are full of the personality of the students who wrote them and the people they studied. Sometimes it feels like we are hearing voices that no one has listened to for a very long time.
For example, one student named Donald Sutherland Murray undertook a study of an outbreak of alopecia he witnessed in the small town of 9000 people where he was practicing medicine. His study presents a cross section of the town, his patients ranged in age from 8 to 65, and were students, joiners, bakers, apprentice engineers and domestic servants. His thesis also includes beautiful portraits, such as the one below of a joiner, ages 35 with a ‘scanty moustache’. This thesis may no longer be relevant for the treatment of alopecia, but it provides information about people’s lives that would not have survived had they not suffered from alopecia.
It is also important to remember that the people who produced the hundreds of volumes that pass through our hands and scanners every week were human beings who probably wept and had many sleepless nights in behalf of the work we are digitising. Sometimes it is rewarding to try to find out more about these individuals. A few months ago I came across a medical thesis from 1906 written by a woman called Sheila M. Ross. It is entitled Acute hallucinatory insanity – a type of the confusional insanities, with clinical notes. As female authors from this period are relatively unusual, I sought to find out a little more about Dr. Ross. I haven’t manages to find masses of information, but I did discover that she was awarded a medal from the School of Medicine in 1899 for Systemic Anatomy. The medal, along with a few others from the same time period, were sold for £170 by the auction house Dix Noonan Web. I have also found a record of her graduation in the July 1904 edition of the British Medical Journal. Of a graduating class of about 130, 7 were women, Sheila M. Ross, Aimee E. Mills, Margaret H. Robinson, Isabelle Logie, Amy M Mackintosh, Eslpeth M. McMillan, Margaret CW Young and Mildred ML Cather.
Much of the early thesis collection are MD’s, however, their value lies not just within the realm of medicine. Murray’s thesis contains a snapshot of life in a small town at the turn of the century, and is unique in that it is the only thesis on alopecia we have come across thus far. Ross’s thesis contains information about the prevalence of mental illness in Scotland and elsewhere, but it can also be used to learn more about the history of women’s participation in the University, and the School of Medicine in particular.
D.S. Murray’s thesis is being processed in the current block and should be available on Edinburgh Research Archive in the next few weeks. Once it has been uploaded a link will be added to this post.
Digitising this thesis collection is an act of time travel. We began in May at the early twentieth century and are currently working through the seventies. We have enjoyed images of a man in a beautiful three-piece suit coaxing a snake into a glass tube from the twenties, and are currently being treated to some majestic large collars, trousers and hair from the seventies. Not only do the fashions change, but the technology changes as well, from hand written, to meticulously typed on typewriters, and finally to modern computers, which we have yet to encounter. In this way the PhD thesis collection is a litmus test for the technological development of the society from which it emerged.
The collection is also an indication of social development. It cannot be denied that the authors of these theses are not representative of society en masse, but a highly educated, largely male minority. But these are not the only people bound within these volumes, and one could argue not the only creators of these theses as physical objects. I am fascinated by the names of countless women who worked tirelessly to create this collection. These are of course the professional typists who pieced together chapters, created tables and graphs and read handwriting that seems to have been often rather illegible. I encounter these women in the acknowledgments section of the theses. I find this particularly amusing because presumably in order to be thanked in the thesis they needed to type their own acknowledgement.
I have been taking note of these women for about three weeks now and so far about 40% of the volumes I have encountered contain acknowledgments to typists. I don’t know if these means the work was typed by its author or if the typist’s name just hasn’t been included. I have recorded sixty different women. Only two women, Helen Scott and Anthea Cormack, have been named twice. Cormack typed two theses addressing fibrinolysis, whereas Scott typed one PhD in chemistry and another MD about the liver. Therefore I’m not sure whether typists specialised in certain topics or not. I have encountered one example of a man typing a thesis for a women, Maureen Child completed her thesis entitled ‘An ethological study of social interaction among nursery school children’ in 1978. She thanks Nick Child, perhaps a relative, for typing her thesis.
These names will not be on the catalogue, they did not receive a new title for their work, and presumably within a decade or so their skills were no longer required. I have managed to find very little information about typists working in Edinburgh in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s but clearly there were several. I would like to type an acknowledgement to them so they don’t have to do it themselves for once.
When I picked up a thesis entitled ‘Eosinphils and Stress’ I did not expect to read sentences like the following; ‘The word “Antarctic” has always been associated with cold, death marches, crushed ships, crevasses and so on’. This demurely bound 1959 thesis by HW Simpson is a fascinating gem. It is part medical thesis, part travel journal,
describing the stresses and daily routines of people living at an Antarctic research base in 1958. Simpson’s aim was to study how the stress of living and working in Antarctica effects eosinophils, a type of white blood cell.
The thesis contains fascinating images of him taking blood samples in a tent, sledge journeys across snowy landscapes, and the living quarters of the researchers. Simpson notes certain events that caused a peak in stress, including how one man was lost in a blizzard for eight hours and another drifted out to sea when his boat ran out of petrol, only to be saved by a ship’s helicopter 25 miles off shore. Simpson also studies stress caused by more mundane activities. The men took turns cooking and he describes how ‘It will be readily understood that to be cook for 8-10 men and do one’s main job can be a considerable strain. Not only must the cook bake bread but he must also help with the washing up and at the end of his week scrub out the kitchen’. This observation is accompanied by a graph entitled ‘The stress of cooking’, which surprisingly seems to rival the stress of the prospect of a cold and icy death in the midst of a blizzard.
Simpson’s theses encompasses the excitement and adventure of living in Antarctica, but also the mundane realities of what that life necessarily entailed; living in cramped conditions, cooking and cleaning, boredom and lack of society at large. It is a good example of how diverse the theses collection is. A medical thesis such as this one could also be useful to a historian, a sociologist, a scientist or someone interested in travel writing, and there are examples like this one throughout the collection. The thesis will be uploaded with the first batch later this month, accessible through Edinburgh Research Archive and also via a link from this page.
Aoife O’Leary McNeice, Project Digitisation Assistant