Two nurses operating an iron lung
Historic photography

8 Mysterious medical images

A recently discovered collection of archive images help to tell the story of England's medical history.

A recently rediscovered a collection of 4,050 photographs taken by the Topical Press Agency, mostly between 1938 and 1943, which show healthcare before and during the Second World War.

The story of how The Historic England Archive acquired the photographs is a mystery.

Thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust, the images are being conserved and made available to the public to view online.

In the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the NHS, July 2018, we’re taking a flick through the collection, which includes photographs of some intriguing treatments, as well as medical advances during the Second World War.

Here are 8 of the images and what they tell us about England’s medical history:

1. One man survived inside an iron lung for 18 years

MED01/01/0377. Source: Historic England Archive

Before a vaccine was developed in 1955, up to half a million people were paralysed or killed each year by poliomyelitis. For thousands of patients, the iron lung saved their lives when their muscles became paralysed. The machine mimicked a patient’s breathing by increasing and decreasing pressure within the chamber, which forced air into and out of the patient’s lungs.

One patient, pictured in the Medical Collection, survived in an iron lung for 18 years. He became a media star, fathered three children, and changed public perceptions of medical technology dependence. Here, nurses demonstrate its use at an exhibition in Charing Cross Underground Station in 1939. (MED01/01/0377)

2. This is not a sun bed

MED01/01/0615. Source: Historic England Archive

This patient isn’t in an iron lung … or a sun bed! She’s in a different sort of chamber, receiving short-wave therapy, in which high-frequency waves are passed through the body and are converted into heat. It’s used to treat deep muscles and joints, commonly the hip. In this 1939 photograph, a patient at the Charterhouse Rheumatism Clinic, London is receiving therapy for osteoarthritis in her hips. (MED01/01/0615)

3. There was such thing as ‘artifical sunlight therapy’

MED01/01/0375. Source: Historic England Archive

Nutritional deficiencies – perhaps brought about by wartime rationing – and lack of sunlight caused illnesses such as rickets and jaundice. Here, a nurse is setting up equipment in a room used for ‘artificial sunlight therapy’ at the health centre at East Finchley, London in 1939.

Patients would sit in the health centre’s ‘sunlight room’ and be exposed to ultraviolet light for prolonged periods of a time. Growing concerns about links to skin cancer reduced the treatment’s popularity, but controlled exposure to ultraviolet rays is still used to treat a number of conditions today. (MED01/01/0375)

4. Some patients were treated on the roof

MED01/01/0440. Source: Historic England Archive

An alternative way of treating patients who lacked sunlight was on a ‘sunshine roof’ or ‘open air ward’, like this one at Cheyne Hospital for Children in London, photographed in 1939. It was also thought that fresh air was beneficial to patients with tuberculosis and other illnesses. (MED01/01/0440)

As well as interesting and now obsolete medical treatments, the collection also provides a glimpse into preparations for the Second World War, and the medical advances that followed.

5. Grand estates were repurposed as hospitals

MED01/01/1882. Source: Historic England Archive

The evacuation of patients and the need for additional hospital beds for casualties meant a variety of buildings were offered or requisitioned for use as auxiliary and military hospitals during the Second World War. Stratton Audley Park, a large house and estate near Bicester, Oxfordshire was used as an auxiliary hospital. Other auxiliary and military hospitals included schools, colleges, country houses, and vicarages. (MED01/01/1882)

6. Blood had to be dried before being sent to the frontline

MED01/01/1906. Source: Historic England Archive

A major medical development brought about by the Second World War was the division and drying of donated blood. Until anticoagulants were discovered in the First World War, blood transfusions had to take place between individuals. Refrigeration meant blood could be stored, but transporting liquid blood wasn’t efficient or economical, so researchers undertook to divide and dry blood.

Here, bottles of dried plasma are being packed into crates in July 1940. The dried plasma could be made liquid by adding sterilised water, which was sent to the frontlines with the blood products in ‘giving sets’. (MED01/01/1906)

7. This pioneering skin graft meant that battle injuries could be effectively treated

MED01/01/2898. Source: Historic England Archive

In 1939, Archibald McIndoe arrived at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead to run the new Centre for Plastic and Jaw Surgery. The techniques were pioneering, and went on to form the basis of burns treatment worldwide. In particular, McIndoe was involved in the development of the walking-stalk skin graft or tube pedicle: a flap of skin fashioned into a tube, attached at both ends to the patient’s body, was removed and reattached (or ‘walked’) until it reached the area needing the graft – often the patient’s nose, as shown in this photograph from 1942. (MED01/01/2898)

8. Mental health was on the agenda

MED01/01/0890. Source: Historic England Archive

Despite other advances, it wasn’t until long after the First and Second World Wars that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder was formally recognised. In this photograph, from August 1940, patients with ‘effort syndrome’ at Mill Hill Emergency Hospital in London are taking part in an art class as occupational therapy. Symptoms of ‘effort syndrome’ included heart palpitations, fatigue, and shortness of breath which limited a patient’s ‘capacity for effort’–though there would be no physical evidence of illness. It is now thought to be a manifestation of an anxiety disorder. (MED01/01/0890)

A selection of photographs from our Medical Collection, together with their informative captions, are available to view at the Historic England Archive website.

Written by Marina Nenadic, Marketing Executive at Historic England

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