Monday, 21 January 2013


Dear readers

I hope you had a wonderful weekend and that you are not completely snowed in!  I have around 5 inches of snow outside my window right now and I am hoping that it will not hold back my research at the National Archives this week.  This post serves a duel purpose.  It publicizes a conference, of which I am a co-organiser, and also illuminates a fundamental institution that guided the practice and development of aviation medicine in the early twentieth century:  the Royal Air Force Medical Service.  

I am a committee member of the Institute for Historical Research History Lab postgraduate group, based in London - the national network for postgraduate students in history.  It is an intellectual and social forum designed to meet the needs of the postgrad community and to discuss ideas on how to drive history forward.  History Lab runs a diverse series of events throughout the academic year, including research seminars, method workshops, and frequent socials.  For more information, see:  IHR History Lab  On top of this, it also hosts an annual conference and this year's theme is 'Institutions'.

INSTITUTIONS: History Lab Annual Conference 2013
Institute of Historical Research, London, 12-13 June 2013

Institutions have always been an integral part of human society and were traditionally understood as instruments of bureaucratic and social control and administration. However, recent events such as the Eurozone crisis have seen a collapse of trust in politics and the rise of activist movements such as Avaaz. These global changes have called into question the traditional definitions of institutions. ‘Institution’ also has a metaphorical meaning, from the ‘institution’ of marriage to a set of behaviours with very specific rules.
What is an ‘institution’? Who makes ‘institutions’? How do they operate? What does the process of ‘institutionalisation’ entail? With these questions in mind, the History Lab Conference 2013 aims to investigate the relationships between institutions, societies and individuals through the analysis of historical example. 

Postgraduate students and early-career researchers are invited to submit proposals for papers (twenty minutes), or panels of three speakers, on specific topics exploring institutions or on wider relevant methodological and philosophical issues. 

Papers may cover any historical region or period, exploring institutions in topics including, but not limited to, the following areas.

  • Religion and morality
  • Social and community activism, protest and resistance.
  • Governmental, non-governmental and charitable
  • Medicine, medical institutions and treatment.
  • Administration, bureaucracy and accountability.
  • Industry, trade and commerce..
  • The family, education and welfare.
  • Cultural production and practices.
  • Labour, business and industrial relations.
  • Policing, law and order, and incarceration.

Some travel bursaries will be available for research students travelling from the United States. Please email: for further details.  

To submit a proposal for the conference, please send your title along with a 250-word abstract, your institutional affiliation, and full contact details to: by the deadline of Thursday 28th February, 2013. 

It is going to be a fantastic conference, so if you are a postgrad, please consider putting forward an abstract for consideration.

The theme of institutions has got me thinking.  Research into the history of aviation medicine is crucial, as without it, we wouldn't have achieved so many advances in aviation technology over the last century.  Aviation medicine was particularly useful in military settings, as medical specialists contributed to the management of modern warfare by maintaining morale, combat efficiency, and discipline.  The Royal Air Force Medical Services (RAFMS) attempted to meet these goals during the Second World War but to do so effectively, it had to have an excellent plan.  How would the medical officers, specialists, and consultants respond to the broad range of casualties created by operational flying?  

By the Second World War, the British armed forces tended to apply medicine and medical knowledge to all aspects of military life.  Harrison argued that this orientation was applied to conserve manpower and to maintain fighting strength.  The use of general medicine declined and clinical medicine was superseded by a new focus on disease prevention.  Each of the armed forces adopted these principles but applied them in very different ways.  The Official History of the RAFMS showed that this service demonstrated their commitment to the dual-emphases of specialisation and prevention by introducing a broad range of specialists.  From 1927, the Central Medical Establishment (a central body that aimed to examine and classify the medical fitness of air force personnel) employed specialists from eight elite branches of the medical profession in special reserve posts, each holding either Wing Commander or Group Captain rank in the areas of medicine (including tropical-medicine), neurology, surgery, bacteriology and parasitology, radiology (including electro-therapeutics), anaesthetics, ophthalmology, and otology. Prior to this, the RAFMS employed specialists to act as civilian consultants, as it was believed that they could rapidly reduce the rate of pensions paid to injured Great War veterans, which had caused an unforeseen financial burden.  By 1932, the prestige of specialist appointments had increased with a number of special reserve posts being upgraded to consultant status, which demonstrated that the RAFMS considered specific skills to be particularly valuable.  These included:  oto-rhino-laryngology, applied physiology, neurology, medicine, and surgery. The consultants proved their value in the earlier pre-war period as they attended a large number of cases, with consultations exceeding 3000 in 1932 and over 6000 in 1935.  It is clear that the consultants were essential in maintaining the health and combat efficiency of RAF personnel in peace time and would be even more indispensable at a time of war.    

I hope you have found this post interesting.  I would love to hear your opinion on 'institutions'.  

Best wishes


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Reid Reaction Tester

Dear readers

As promised, I would bounce back with some interesting posts for you to read.  I thought I would showcase an instrument that I find particularly fascinating and will feature in my doctoral thesis.  I hope you find this interesting and I would like to hear your points of view.

The Reid Reaction Tester can be described as one of the earliest attempts at neuropsychiatric screening in the Royal Air Force.  This device, introduced in the 1920s, helped to ascertain if potential flying candidates possessed the aptitude for piloting an aircraft. What is particularly interesting to me regarding the introduction of this machine was that neuropsychiatrists were not part of the medical service at this time but psychological theories were prevalent within the RAF and its medical service.  Mental scientists and eugenicists had been researching the link between intelligence, coordination and performance from the nineteenth century, and the RAF was adopting a similar theory in their selection process.  Some military historians may question why I believe that this is a medical device and not just a military selection tool.  My answer to that is simple:  it is testing the brain and mental capacity of the candidate.  The Reid machine tested the co-ordination of the brain, hands and feet of potential aviators but why was this introduced? 

Training a pilot for service flying cost thousands of pounds and was very time-consuming.  After the man had a successful interview, he was subject to a medical examination which ascertained physical fitness but apart from that, there was no way of knowing if the man would become a good pilot – if he possessed ‘the right stuff’.  It was believed that by measuring his abilities before training, the Reid Reaction Tester would sort the wheat from the chaff, thus saving time, money, and lives.  This very argument appeared again during the Second World War when RAF neuropsychiatrist Robert Gillespie attempted to reform the selection process using scientific methods.  Popular periodical Flight Magazine stated that in 80% of cases, the apparatus indicated that the man would become a good pilot, and this was proven during training.

The apparatus could be described as a ‘flight simulator’. The candidate sat in a mock cockpit and operated the control of the aircraft.  Inside the cockpit were three sets of small electric lamps:  port side coloured red and starboard green.  The examiner would turn on a set of lights and the pilot would have to manoeuvre the controls of the aircraft to turn these lights out as quickly as possible.  The responses of the pilot were recorded on a machine mounted on the mock fuselage, and the time taken to execute a particular command was measured by the length of the line recorded by the stylo.  To illustrate this further, if you have ever been for an eye examination, many of you will have experienced the peripheral vision test.  You sit in a dark room with a joystick in front of you and you have to hit the button as quickly as possible when the red light flashes up on the screen.  Practically the same idea!  The image below is from the Royal Air Force Museum’s collection and shows the recording apparatus:

 As I learn more about this fascinating device, I will enlighten you further!  I am interested in hearing your views or if you know anything more about this instrument.  

I hope you are all having a wonderful week!


Friday, 11 January 2013

Flying Stress: The reclassification of mental disorders in the Royal Air Force, 1941-2

Dear readers

First of all, I would like to thank you for your patience with me.  The sudden passing of my father has hit me like a ton of bricks and it is going to take me a long time to recover.  I am currently hurtling down the West Coast Mainline at 120 mph, courtesy of Virgin Trains, and I thought I would share the details of a conference that I will be attending in a couple of months time.

I am presenting at the British Psychological Society, History and Philosophy of Psychology Section Annual Conference, which is on the topic of 'DSM:  The History, Theory, and Politics of Diagnosis'.  This will be held at the University of Surrey, Guildford, between Monday 25th and Wednesday 27th of March.  According to the section, 2013 marks the 40-year anniversary of the vote by the members of the American Psychiatric Association (commonly referred to as the APA) to remove 'homosexuality' from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and the publication of a new volume.  The conference not only marks this landmark event but also reflects upon the internal politics that shaped diagnoses, the classification of mental disorders, and the theories that underpinned the mental sciences in history.  I am particularly excited about this conference, as it is my first external conference (outside of Oxford) and there is a chance for me to submit my paper for the Section's peer reviewed journal.

My paper encompasses all of the conference's emphases.  History, theory, and politics are examined extensively within my paper, which critically assesses the reclassification of mental disorders in the RAF during the Second World War.  Below is my abstract, which on reflection, could have been written a lot better.  I welcome your constructive feedback:

Flying Stress:
The reclassification of mental disorders in the Royal Air Force, 1941-2

The definition and classification of mental disorders was an issue of central importance to neuropsychiatrists working in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War.  These accomplished specialists believed that classifications should be specific, informed by rigorous research, and should reflect the image of an advancing scientific profession.  This paper will examine a disorder, ‘flying stress’, which did not meet their exacting standards.  It will critically assess the process by which this disorder was redefined and reclassified during the period 1941-2.  The objections of neuropsychiatrists to the use of the term flying stress will be examined, including problems created by multiple medical definitions, similarities to other mental disorders, matters of professional standing, and non-adherence to official policy recommendations.  The paper will show that the process of redefinition was defined by the concerns of RAF senior officers and intense inter-disciplinary research.  Finally, it will consider the impact that the reclassification of mental disorders had on the practice of neuropsychiatry by examining post-removal terminology and the education of medical officers.  This process also had a broader significance:  neuropsychiatrists had effectively transformed categories of mental disorders, demonstrating that they held administrative control within their branch of the RAF Medical Service.

I hope you find this abstract interesting and I also welcome a debate about the classification of mental disorders in the twentieth century, whether in military or civilian settings.

I wish you all a belated Happy New Year.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013


Dear readers

I will not be posting for a little while, as my father passed away peacefully a few days ago.  I promise that when I return, I will have some interesting posts for you to enjoy.

Until then, thanks for your understanding.