Monday, 24 March 2014

Opposites Attract: Science and Archives

Following on from last year’s successful conference on women in science, hosted by London Metropolitan Archives, we were delighted to present a paper at this year’s ‘Opposites Attract: Science and Archives’ event.

During the day we heard from a mix of speakers on quite varied topics relating to science in the archives. We were particularly interested to hear from Anita Hollier from the CERN archive, and she spoke about the overall objectives and scope of her work at CERN, including selection of records for permanent preservation, digitisation projects and the challenge of electronic records, which we all face as archivists. Anita also provided examples of some of the fascinating archives held at CERN, including Nobel Laureate, Wolfgang Pauli. Felicity Henderson then provided a fascinating window into the life and work of Robert Hooke in 17th century London. We heard about the social conditions that enabled the development of science in the 17th century, and how Hooke was able to gather and pass information between the Royal Society and the commercial networks he penetrated in London’s coffee houses. These were frequented by bookmakers, seafarers, merchants and alderman, and through Hooke, provided the link between the Royal Society and the wider world. Caroline de Stefani , Conservation Studio Manager from London Metropolitan Archives then provided an interesting and visual presentation on the archive’s conservation work carried out at the LMA in order to make the fire and water-damaged Great Parchment Book (a survey commissioned by Charles I) accessible to researchers. You can see their work here.

We then spoke about our work on the collections development aspects of Saving Oxford Medicine and also the challenges associated with preserving and cataloguing modern science collections. You can view our presentation slides here.

Anne Barrett closed the day with a presentation on global linked data catalogues in the history of science. Saving Oxford Medicine would like to thank conference organiser Howard Benge for an enjoyable and thought-provoking day.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Scientists of the Future: Tim Berners-Lee

As mentioned in a previous post, Sir Walter Bodmer’s correspondence and research papers feature some of the most notable names from the world of science, and previous posts have drawn attention to just a few of those, including James Watson and Francis Crick. Yet, a particular strength of the archive is that not only does it contain papers relating to prolific scientists who were Bodmer’s contemporaries - and those active in an earlier age who inspired him - but also those starting out in their careers, the scientists of the future.

Both Walter and Julia Bodmer kept comprehensive administrative and research records relating to all researchers who passed through their laboratories at the Department of Genetics in Oxford (1970-1979), Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in London (1979-1996) and more recently the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford. As such, the papers provide a paper trail of ‘future’ scientists.

A particular highlight has been uncovering a file of correspondence with none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. From 1970-1979 when Walter Bodmer was first Professor of Genetics at Oxford University, and it was in 1975 that he received a letter from Berners-Lee, who was interested in gaining some computing experience in the Department of Genetics. The young Berners-Lee had joined Oxford University in 1973 as a physics student at Queens College (graduating in 1976). Accordingly, he joined Walter Bodmer's Genetics Laboratory for a brief spell of ‘vacation work’ carrying out some computer programming for Bodmer. Berners-Lee indeed built his first computer while he was at student at Oxford.

The correspondence file of Berners-Lee in Sir Walter’s archive contains several items of correspondence and annotated notes, mostly relating to Bodmer acting as referee. He later wrote to Bodmer in 1976, thanking him for the time spent working in the Genetics Laboratory, of which he said, ‘apart from being interesting at the time, it’s been a useful experience in choosing what I want to do (and probably getting the job eventually)’. Tim Berners-Lee went on to receive a knighthood in 2004 ‘for services to the global development of the internet’.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Baby Milk Campaigns and Eastern Europe

In 1983 Oxfam ran a Baby Milk campaign, which aimed to challenge the promotion of artificial baby milk in poor countries and promote breastfeeding. This is a good example of the type of campaigns material which we are just starting to catalogue:

Front cover of Oxfam’s Baby Milk campaign leaflet (MS. Oxfam CPN/3/311, Bodleian Library)

Inside of Oxfam’s Baby Milk campaign leaflet (MS. Oxfam CPN/3/311, Bodleian Library)
Yet, in 1995 the Baby Milk Action Coalition (BMAC) was still campaigning on the same issue. Oxfam was a founding member of BMAC, a British group which was set up to monitor and coordinate a response to infringements of the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (1981). From a series of project files in the archive, it is clear that Oxfam continued to financially support this group. 

Baby Milk Action Update, Issue number 17, November 1995 (MS. Oxfam PRF EEG 011, Bodleian Library)

WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes

The WHO/UNICEF code was originally implemented to try and regulate advertisements for baby milk. This was because the percentage of women who breastfed in countries where baby milk was  heavily promoted and publicised, including by health care professionals, was much lower.

The code also highlighted the risks of using milk supplements, which were thought to be exacerbated by advertising. The most prominent of the risks are listed in the document below; it notably includes: contaminated water supply, illiteracy and poverty. 

‘The Baby Food Controversy – John Clark March 1980’ (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Library)

Campaigns such as Oxfam’s and BMAC’s were launched to raise awareness of these issues and to highlight instances in which the code was not being upheld.

Eastern Europe

There are various reasons why this issue had not gone away in the period between 1981 and 1995. The issue was re-surfacing in the mid-1990s due to the humanitarian situation in Eastern Europe. Ultimately, companies were ignoring the code. The following excerpts from documents in the BMAC project files allude to the difficulties surrounding the use, and promotion of, baby milk in the context of aid.

1. A note prepared for Stewart Wallis by C. Mears, dated 23.7.93 (MS. Oxfam PRF WGE 199 A5):

Breast milk substitutes are assuming a lot of importance currently because of the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Europe. Some aid agencies are sending breast milk substitute products apparently without due care.

2. from MS. Oxfam PRF EEG 011’s application form, 1995:

Financial insecurity is forcing women to restrict maternity leave and return to paid work if they can. Also baby food companies have been able to establish themselves in the region and are promoting their products efficiently in a context of lack of awareness of the issues and possible risks.

3. Memo from Dr. Mohga Kamal Smith (Health Policy Advisor, Policy Development Team) addressed to Tony Vaux, Head of Bureau (Eastern Europe), dated 3 May 1995:
I think there is a real danger in EE of declining breast feeding with the negative impact on children’s health and nutrition status. The time is crucial because now it is still not too late to reverse the tide if we to learn from other countries experiences of the difficulties of returning to breast feeding after establishing formulas and baby foods environment. 

‘From a true story, as reported by Dr. Elizabeth Hillman, from Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital’. A cartoon prepared by US pressure groups but part of Oxfam’s ‘Baby Foods Campaign Pack’, 1980 (Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Library)

To counteract these comments, there is an interesting memo, dated 25 June 1995, from Jovanka Stojsavljevic (Oxfam’s Representative for Former Yugoslavia), to Tony Vaux, Head of Bureau (Eastern Europe). This was her response to the project proposal above in point 2:

I do not think there is a real fear of commercial baby food companies being able to create a dependency on their products, as they did in the Third World. Nor do I think there is a desperate need to promote breast-feeding.
I think that this proposal and the approach of UNICEF here, is much more connected to their distinctive competence developed through their work in developing countries, rather than a detailed assessment of the problems for mothers within a society, w[h]ere the health care system is collapsing as a result of war, rather than a lack of awareness, expertise and knowledge.
‘Yugoslavia’ had quite an advanced health care system before the war and breast feeding was commonly upheld to be the best for the child. If anything, the problem was that women who could not breast feed felt they were ‘inadequate mothers’.
This is a revealing insight which demonstrates the conflict between global policy, such as the WHO/UNICEF code, and what is actually happening on the ground at the grassroots level in a particular region.
The debate surrounding breast feeding continues to be discussed today. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Oxfam’s role in smallpox eradication

Oxfam jeeps and vaccination teams at work, 1974 (MS. Oxfam PRF BIH 014 Vol. 1)

Files in the Project files and Directorate sequences of the Oxfam Archive shed some light on Oxfam’s small yet important role in one of the major medical achievements of the twentieth century – the eradication of smallpox.

Smallpox was an acute contagious disease caused by the Variola virus, causing death in 30-35% of cases, and in other cases, complications including blindness, limb deformities and severe scarring. It was officially declared eradicated in 1980, following an immunization campaign led by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Following the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in Bihar state, India, in 1974, Oxfam sent its Medical Adviser, Dr. Tim Lusty, to make an emergency visit to the area in July of that year. On his recommendation and that of Oxfam's Field Director for East India, R. Subramaniam, Oxfam made a grant of £42,193 towards the WHO campaign in the region.  The funds were used for the provision of jeeps, plus salaries for drivers and mechanics and medical equipment, to be used by 14 of the programme’s 56 ‘search and containment’ teams in South Bihar. Oxfam also played a hands-on role, recruiting voluntary nurses and other volunteers and sending two of its staff members out to India to help administrate the project.

Weekly report on smallpox outbreaks, filed by the vaccination teams, 28th December 1974 (MS. Oxfam PRF BIH 014 Vol. 1)


The search and containment tactic used by the teams of volunteers was key to the success of the Bihar Smallpox Eradication Programme. The teams comprised one medical officer, one assistant and 4-6 vaccinators, working under the supervision of two epidemiologists recruited by WHO. Rather than attempting mass vaccination, the programme concentrated on identifying individual cases of the disease, tracing the source of infection and containing it by vaccinating all contacts of the infected person.

This was often far from easy, as is revealed by a report from Oxfam field worker Suresh Kumar, dated 2 September 1974. Aside from early starts, long days and long journeys in difficult conditions, the teams often met resistance from the local people themselves:

"People are very much resisting vaccination because 1. They believe that they will have fever and cannot work. 2. They are afraid of the needles. 3. This is the first time in their lives they have been vaccinated, or if they have been vaccinated, it was a very long time ago. 4. The people think that the babies are too young to be vaccinated. 5. Small children run away and we have to chase them."

Aside from Oxfam's financial contribution to the project, the organisation made another, perhaps even more important contribution, in the form of a survey technique, based on studies carried out by Oxfam volunteers. The technique used local markets, which always drew large crowds, as venues for disseminating information about the disease and uncovering new outbreaks. The Oxfam volunteers wrote up detailed guidelines for those carrying out such surveys, based on what they had experienced.

Guidelines for Market Surveys by Alan Marinis and Bev Spring, page 1, 1975 (MS. Oxfam PRF BIH 014 Vol. 1)

The importance of the technique to the Bihar smallpox eradication programme is underlined in an undated copy of a letter from Dr. L.B. Brilliant, WHO Medical Officer, to R. Subramaniam, received 3 Mar 1975:

“This has proven to be one of the best methods we have for finding hidden cases of smallpox, and I have no doubt that this innovative technique will shorten the period necessary to find and contain all of the smallpox left in Bihar. We are very grateful to Oxfam for many things that you have given us, but this technique may prove to be the most valuable gift of all to the smallpox Programme.”