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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, September 2003 Contents

Berkshire Family Historian
September 2003

Family history resources in the Wellcome Library

Christopher Hilton, Senior Archivist, Department of Archives & Manuscripts

The Wellcome Library for the History & Understanding of Medicine might not, at first glance, seem an obvious source for the family historian. Its name seems to suggest a concern with surgical techniques and pharmaceutical formulae rather than individuals. Medicine, however, is not a science practised in a vacuum, but one that touches everyone. Almost without exception we will be born, live our lives and die with some degree of medical attention that will leave a trace in medical records. In addition, of course, many of us will have medical practitioners of one sort or another in our family tree. For these reasons the Wellcome Library has much to offer the family historian, whether the search relates to a practitioner, a patient, or local historical background.

The Wellcome Library is one of the activities of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical research charity, and is located on the Euston Road in London. (Full contact details are at the end of the article.) The Trust was endowed by Sir Henry Wellcome out of the profits of the Wellcome pharmaceuticals firm (now part of GlaxoSmithKline) and the Library, which grew out of Sir Henry’s personal collection, is the country’s leading centre for the study of medical history. Its holdings are extremely diverse in subject: Wellcome saw the history of medicine essentially as the history of humankind’s place in the physical universe and so the holdings go beyond medicine into the general history of science, into demography, public health and nutrition; into religion and anthropology to explore the ‘scientific’ beliefs of non-technological societies; into unorthodox medicine and quackery; the list is endless. The types of material held are varied too:published books and journals, archives, pictures, photographs and moving images. This short description can do no more than provide a taste: a leaflet giving a more exhaustive listing of family history sources can be downloaded from the Library’s website and is available in hard copy on application to the Library.

Usefully for the family historian, many of the relevant published sources are concentrated in a special Biography Room which brings together materials relating to the lives of individuals. There are hundreds of biographies of medical practitioners and in some cases of famous patients, plus a wide variety of biographical dictionaries and directories. The Medical Directory, published annually and giving the address and a career summary for almost every doctor in the United Kingdom, is held in a continuous run from 1855 to the present and may be the most valuable source; the Register of Nurses (from 1930 onwards) and its predecessor publications perform a similar role for the nursing profession. For the eighteenth century an invaluable source is Eighteenth century medics by P.J. and R.V. Wallis which records all known mentions of eighteenth century personnel in subscriptions, licences, and apprenticeship papers. Other useful directories include various specialised listings that bring together, for example, army medical officers, members of the Indian Medical Service and so forth; biographies of the Fellows of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons (by Munk and Plarr respectively, and known as ‘Munk’s Roll’and Plarr’s Lives’); directories of alumni of various universities and public schools; some trade directories for various towns; and of course standard biographical reference works such as Who’s Who and Who Was Who, Burke’s Peerage and Landed Gentry, the Dictionary of National Biography and its analogues covering countries such as Australia, the United States and various European nations.
Etching by George Cruikshank

Etching by George Cruikshank of a short dentist extracting a tooth from an extremely tall lady, 1821

Archive and manuscript sources in the Library are every bit as varied as the published holdings, stretching from the Dark Ages to the present and taking in illuminated manuscripts, administrative records, personal correspondence, research notes and a wide variety of other types of document. Most material relevant to the family historian dates from before 1900 and forms part of the collection of Western Manuscripts, the vast majority of which is now catalogued onto a database that can be searched for names of places, institutions or individuals. To make this vast array of material more manageable, various sources leaflets have been produced that summarise holdings relating to various themes:one on British local history enables the reader to bring together all material anchored in a particular area.

Summons Illustration

MS.7019: ‘Summons issued against the Rev. A.H. Drummond of Maidenhead for contravening rabies precautions, 1878. Wellcome Library MS.7019/6.’

Key sources for the family historian would include the case-books of local medical practitioners, which generally list patients seen, their illness and what was prescribed, and the doctor’s fee. Often the treatment recorded is attendance at a birth. Books of this nature are held for various localities. Doctors’ correspondence can also be useful, since details of a consultation or even autopsy may be recorded cheek by jowl with personal letters to the doctor’s family.

Illustration - a recipe

MS.2363: ‘Late 18th century household recipe book compiled in Berkshire. Wellcome Library MS.2363.’

Hospital records are not common at the Wellcome Library since, as a private charity, it is not a place of deposit for public records - ruling out patient records from within the NHS system. However, some private institutions are represented, particularly mental hospitals; ranging from the extensive records of Ticehurst House hospital in Sussex (late eighteenth century to early twentieth century patient records are available; the records even include, for a few years, lists of employees from the nurses down to the gardeners and stable-boys) to occasional stray volumes from other institutions. It should be noted that the Library’s visual holdings contain illustrations of a great many hospitals which might be of interest for background information.

Three other major archive collections are worth highlighting for family history purposes. The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) is a state body and its administrative archives accordingly are at the National Archives; however, the RAMC also accumulated a collection of personal papers — diaries, memoirs, photograph albums and so forth — from members of the RAMC and its predecessor bodies, going back to the Peninsular War. That collection is now deposited at the Wellcome Library and is a resource worth exploring for anyone investigating a military medical figure. Still on the military theme, the Library has a large collection of material relating to Florence Nightingale, including hundreds of her letters: one of these, to Colonel Lefroy (one of her allies in the fight for reform of the army medical services), lists the nurses who served with her in Crimea. Finally, and still on the subject of nursing, the Queen’s Nursing Institute was founded to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 (it still exists) to train and provide district nurses. It kept records of the nurses on its books, inspecting them regularly, and a long series of volumes record, for example, the nurse’s training and posts held, her religious affiliation and marital status (some volumes adding more information such as the nurse’s previous occupation and her father’s job).

In addition to its own holdings the Wellcome Library can offer access to information about sources at other repositories. With the National Archives it hosts the Hospital Records database, summarising known hospital archive holdings across the country; it is also in the process of compiling a more general Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey to cover all medical sources (so far 110+ repositories, mainly in London, have been covered). These are available on-line via the Library website. Other electronic sources can be consulted within the Library; these include the Business Archives Council’s databases recording the location of records of the pharmaceutical industry and of veterinary science, compiled recently with Wellcome Trust funding.
Doctors, nurses, patients ... for family historians searching for information on any of these, or background on the medical milieu in which they worked, the Wellcome Library is well worth a visit. This piece has done no more than scratch the surface: readers are invited to come and find out more for themselves.

The Wellcome Library for the History & Understanding of Medicine is located in the Wellcome Building, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. Library hours are 9:45-5:15 Monday, Wednesday & Friday, 9:45-7:15 Tuesday & Thursday and 9:45-1:00 Saturday. Some identification will be needed on your first visit. For general enquiries ring 020 7611 8582 or email <>; alternatively visit the Library website at <>. From the website there are links to the Library’s databases of published and archive holdings.

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created 9th December 2003