Monday, 24 December 2012

The Annual Round-up

Dear readers

This will be my last post of 2012, as I am signing off for the Christmas and New Year Period.  I thought it would be appropriate to give you 'Lynsey's Annual Round-up' at this stage, for you to understand the progress I have made in my doctorate in 2012.  I will completely understand if you view this as a self-indulgent pat on the back but I hope it will inspire new doctoral students to push ahead with their own research and to get the same enjoyment from the process.

2012 has been a very productive year for me.  The year started with multiple trips to the National Archives, Kew, where I gathered an abundance of primary source material to enable me to start writing up.  I write up my findings as I go along to ensure that my writing skills do not get rusty.  I will, of course, revise, amend and add to this in my final year.  I completed my transfer of status (often known as an upgrade), where I had to write up 5000 words of original research and present a conference paper.  In extension to the latter, I co-organised the conference where this was presented, which was a massive success.  I passed my transfer and I gained some very useful feedback from my examiners, Dr Sloan Mahone and Professor Pietro Corsi.

The summer months saw me pretty much camped out in the London archives and libraries, and writing up from Oxford.  I have completed my secondary reading (for now) and wrote up a draft introduction/literature review.  This has to be revised, as it is sitting at 15,000 words and is all in the present tense.  When I am doing my final drafts, I will put this into synopsis but contrary to what my fellow doctoral students think, this was not a waste of time.  It has helped me to 'set out my stall' so to speak - I have refined my core research questions and I know who I agree and disagree with within the literature.  I researched and wrote up a chapter on the organisation and administration of the Royal Air Force Medical Services, with specific emphases on neuropsychiatry and the core themes of specialisation and prevention.  I completed a draft in late October and my supervisor, Professor Mark Harrison has given me very useful feedback.  This was a mundane and tedious chapter to write but I had to do this first to be able to understand anything about my topic!

The last few months have also been excellent. I entered my second year in October and I have begun to research a chapter on the development of aviation medicine, with particular reference to the study and understanding of mental disorder within the RFC, RNAS, and RAF until the outbreak of war in 1939.  My research has taken me to Brooklands Museum in Surrey, where I met the most adorable volunteers, who helped me to understand the nature and consequences of flying accidents in the early twentieth century.  I have set this within the context of the development of aviation as a whole, as I believe that the two chains of knowledge were developing at very different paces.  I have also applied to present at a couple of conferences in 2013 and I am waiting for the results.  I have also been granted access to three exclusive archives, which will add a unique qualitative edge to my thesis.  These archives are virtually untapped by historians but I will not reveal their names and sources until I have been given ethical approval.  I am a bit superstitious.    I also joined the IHR HistoryLab Committee, based in London, and I am the Public Relations Officer for the Oxford Forum for Medical Humanities.  We have an event coming up in the New Year - I will post details when everything is finalised.

All in all, it has been an excellent year for me research-wise and I have made lots of new friends and contacts.  I will leave you with this wonderful wintery photograph.  This is held at the Imperial War Museum archives and is of three Westland Lysander Mark IIIAs of No. 307 Polish Fighter-Reconnaisance Squadron RAF.  They were based at Dunino, Fife and this photo depicts a photographic reconnaissance training sortie in the snowy Scottish hills.

I wish you all a very peaceful festive period, whatever you are doing and a Happy New Year when it comes.

Best wishes


Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Trick Cyclists: Neuropsychiatry and the Management of Aerial Warfare, 1939-1945

Dear readers

Let me begin this post by apologising for not updating sooner.  I am back in Scotland for the festive period and my parents have presented me with a massive list of household chores.  Some holiday eh?  Secondly, thank you for continuing to read my blog.  I have had 225 hits so far, which I did not expect! 

I haven't brought any university work home with me, as I intended for this to be an actual holiday, so this post is going to take a slightly different form.  I thought I would share an abstract with you for a paper I am due to give in Glasgow in February 2013.  I was kindly invited to present on my research by PhD students Keith Larson (Glasgow Caledonian University) and Susan Osbaldstone (University of Strathclyde), who are the convenors of the From the Sources to the Discourses postgraduate seminar series.  This series is sponsored by the Wellcome funded Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (where I did my MSc), the Modern British History Network, and the Economic History Society.  The series gives postgrads a chance to discuss their work and to meet other students from outside of their institution.  For more information visit:  

Those who have met me will know that I am a generally loud, bubbly, and sociable person, but when it comes to presenting at conferences and seminar series, I am a nervous wreck.  I think it is the 'all eyes on you' feeling and the fear of not being able to answer questions.  I am quite far into my research but I still feel a bit out of my depth when it comes to sharing it.  I have kept my topic quite broad, as one of my main archives is closed and I cannot do anything too indepth because of that.  Essentially, I am providing a 20 minute condensed overview of my doctoral research so far.  I am copying and pasting my introduction below and I would really like some feedback from you, my lovely readers:

The Trick Cyclists:  Neuropsychiatry and the Management of Aerial Warfare, 1939-1945

From the Second World War, the British public and historians have enjoyed a romantic relationship with the flyers of the Royal Air Force.  This infatuation began in the summer of 1940, when British fighter pilots defended the country from the powerful German Luftwaffe in full sight of the villages of southern England.  For the remaining years of the war, the nightly rumble of RAF bombers and the daily presence of dashing young men in blue uniforms added an exciting dimension to life on the austere home front.  Enthusiasts and scholars remain captivated by the heroism and bravery of the airmen, which is indicated by, the recent construction of war memorials and the awarding of medals long after the Second World War.  Historians, however, have yet to examine the full extent of the sacrifices made.  The flyers of the RAF were considered gallant and heroic due to the dangers they faced in operational flying, but these men faced unparalleled psychological strains throughout the war and an organised team of mental specialists were essential in treating the emotional and neurological burdens of modern warfare. 

Each of the British armed forces employed a number of different tactics in the battle against mental disorder in twentieth century warfare.  The most common was to employ a number of psychiatric and neurological specialists to diagnose, treat, and above all, prevent mental breakdown.  This practice has received extensive attention from historians, who have produced a rich historiography that details the history of military psychiatry.  The weight of scholarship, however, is completely imbalanced in favour of the army, which has led to the experiences of the RAF and Royal Navy being largely overlooked.  This gap in knowledge is significant, as the RAF employed very specific mental specialists to manage the psychological effects of aerial warfare:  neuropsychiatrists or as they were affectionately known, the 'trick cyclists'.  My paper intends to assess the processes by which RAF neuropsychiatrists sought to prevent and treat mental disorder during the Second World War.  I will describe the structure, administration, and organisation of neuropsychiatry in the RAF and will briefly outline the theories, methods, and disciplinary alliances that underpinned neuropsychiatry at this time.  I will then move to examine the roles and duties of neuropsychiatrists in the areas of screening and selection, preventive policies, and the treatment of psychiatric casualties.


As you can probably tell, this is definitely a work in progress and any comments/criticisms you have will be gratefully received.  Also, if you have any tips for me to improve my confidence in academic public speaking, please let me know.  This is a fear that I am going to have to overcome if I am ever going to become a good historian.

Best wishes


Monday, 10 December 2012

The Oxford Military Hospital, 1939-45

Dear readers

I would like to begin this short blog post by thanking Dr Vanessa Heggie for her helpful comments on my previous post on the origins of military aviation medicine.  She is a teaching associate at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, and has recently published a book on the history of sports medicine.  I have taken her comments on board and this has helped me to amend the chapter I am writing on the development of military aviation medicine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Vanessa's bio:  I have also had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Roland Edwards, who worked with the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine, and is now a PhD student at the University of Manchester, looking into the history of ergonomics.  Thank you very much for your comments so far - I do take them seriously and aim to respond to each one.

I have decided to do a bit of an institutional post this time, which is not exclusive to aviation medicine but features in a chapter on treatment in my thesis on RAF neuropsychiatry.  Many temporary wartime/military hospitals have never been explored but contributed so much to our understanding of modern medicine.  As I am located in Oxford, I thought I would look across Banbury Road to my nearest college neighbour, St Hugh's.  I found a fact file relating to this college, written by Dorothy Quade during my preliminary research, detailing its wartime experiences and I thought I would share it with you all.

St Hugh's is a comparatively young Oxford college, established in 1886 by Elizabeth Wordsworth, a great niece of the famous poet.  She was a champion of women's education, and her aim was to allow poorer women to gain an Oxford education.  It is now co-educational.  Well known alumni include Theresa May MP and Aung San Suu Kyi:

St Hugh's College today.  Photograph courtesy of Michael Coleman: 

Not many people know that St Hugh's was requisitioned and it became a tri-service hospital specialising in head injuries during the Second World War.  I discovered that one of the major RAF neurologists in my research, Sir Charles Symonds, based himself there unofficially throughout the war and this encouraged me to look into this hospital.  The following is mainly descriptive and administrative but I thought I would share it with you.

St Hugh's was an ideal site in which to establish a temporary hospital, as its buildings were relatively new, the oldest being built in 1915, which meant it was accessible and easy to keep clean.  I don't know how many of you are acquainted with the design of traditional Oxford colleges, but they are built on a staircase system - rooms built off the main staircase with no connecting corridors, which would have posed logistical problems within a hospital environment. It was also located near RAF Brize Norton, which meant that cases could be evacuated by air and transferred to St Hugh's or one of the other Oxford hospitals.   The armed forces built temporary brick huts to create wards, treatment rooms, and administrative accommodation within the college grounds.  The hospital was in the capable hands of neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who believed that the sooner a head injury was treated, the more likely the patient was to live.  The hospital sent out Mobile Neurosurgical Units, which performed operations on the injured at the front - the patients were then sent back to St Hugh's for further treatment.  During the war, the mortality rate for head injuries had dropped from 50% in the Great War, to a mere 5% - showing how far techniques and developed, and was no doubt influenced by the use of the new wonder drug penicillin.  13,000 tri-service patients were treated at the 300 bed hospital throughout the war.  This figure included not only allies but also prisoners of war.  After the hostilities, some patients participated in on-going studies, which led to the development of new neurosurgical techniques.  Little is known about the patients, as these records remain closed under the Data Protection Act.

I hope you have found this mini post interesting and if you have come across St Hugh's Hospital in your own research, I would love to know what you found out.

Best wishes


Monday, 3 December 2012

The Origins of British Military Aviation Medicine

Dear readers

Many people ask me why I am so fascinated with military aviation medicine. I have been accused of harbouring a morbid curiosity by being interested in the causes and effects of air crashes, airmen passing out from a lack of oxygen, air sickness and burns.  For me, this is not morbid at all - I fully sympathise with the men who suffered from these complaints and I hold massive respect for those who died whilst on operations.  To me, the history of military aviation medicine is an integral part of military aviation history as a whole.  I believe that the two histories are inextricably linked - this may be a statement of the obvious but please stay with me!  Although the development of aviation technology and medicine evolved based on different scientific knowledge, the human body had to adapt to the environment and conditions that advances in technology had allowed access to - do you see where I am coming from? For instance,  pilots in the Royal Air Force today can reach top speeds of c. 1,335 miles per hour and altitudes of 55,000 feet in the Typhoon FGR4. This is not just a triumph in terms of technology, research into the effects of travelling at such speeds and heights on the body had to be taken into account before air force personnel were allowed to fly these advanced fighter jets.  Where did this all start I hear you cry?  The origins are visible in the late nineteenth century.  

The pioneering work of a French physiologist has convinced me that aviation medicine and the cognate discipline of high-altitude physiology were established in the late nineteenth century.  This belief is shared by other historians of science and medicine, including Jorge Lossio and John B. West.  Paul Bert (1833-86), who was a French zoologist, physiologist, and politician,  is considered to be the father of modern aviation medicine, due to his seminal work on the deleterious effects of high-altitude.  In La Pression Barométrique (1878) he argued that medical problems at high-altitudes were caused by low partial pressure of oxygen due to reduced barometric pressure.  His work was based on animal research:  he placed them in a hyperbaric chamber and examined their reactions when exposed to different levels of oxygen.  You can see how this relates to aviation?  In the days before oxygen equipment was provided, pilots were deprived of adequate oxygen supply when flying at high altitudes - this is known as hypoxia.  This important text was published when medical professionals were concerned with the effects of hypoxia and cold on balloon pilots.  Ballooning had become a popular means of military transport and observation across Europe and the British had realised that it could afford a tactical advantage in modern warfare.  This was recognised from 1863, when two officers from the Royal Engineers attempted to show the potential value of the balloon, and experiments in reconnaissance ascents were conducted and largely successful.  Despite their use of the balloon, the British made no contribution to the study of aviation medicine at this time.  This did not mean that they did not understand the effects of altitude and climate on the body. 

Lossio showed that British scientists and medical professionals conducted a number of altitude and climate studies in the nineteenth century but these were intertwined with the expansion of their interests around the world and not concerned with aviation.[1]  These studies were not only concerned with life at high-altitudes, they aimed to elucidate the processes of acclimatisation and adaptation that the British settlers would have to endure upon arrival in a tropical country or colony.  For instance, Lossio showed that in 1891, P.D.G. Clark, the Curator of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Ceylon, prepared a report on the climate and agricultural possibilities of the Perene region of Peru.  His report was largely favourable and stated that the Perene did not possess the same unhealthy conditions as most tropical countries, as it was free from malaria, the water was odourless, and the natives had a healthy constitution.  The altitude was habitable and the soil was very fertile, meaning that it had potential for agricultural development.  Clark’s report resulted in the colonization of the region some years later and the arrival of British families who planted an abundance of coffee.[2]  The British therefore had an understanding of the effects of altitude and climate on the body, albeit in a different environment, but did not make the connection between this and aviation.  

I hope some of my ramblings have made sense and I would be very interested to hear your own thoughts on the origins of military aviation medicine. Thank you for reading this post and I hope to get some constructive feedback.
Best wishes

[1] J. Lossio, ‘Life at High Altitudes:  Medical Historical Debates (Andean region, 1890-1960)’, (Univ. Manchester Thesis, 2006), p. 18.
[2] Ibid, pp. 50-1; Lossio was referring to:  University College London Special Collections Archive, Report on the Central Territory of Peru by P.D.G. Clark, Curator, Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniva, Ceylon, 19 December 1891.