Hidden Stories of 21st Century Latin America and the Caribbean

workshopThe International Oral History Workshop “Hidden Stories of 21st Century Latin America and the Caribbean” took place at Warwick on Wednesday 21 February 2018. The day was a celebration of the launch of the Special Issue on ‘Cuba’ recently published in Oral History.

After an introduction to the day by my Warwick colleague Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla we had a morning session of papers on Cuba by Stephanie herself, Kepa Artaraz (University of Brighton), Elizabeth Dore (University of Southampton), and Daliany Kersh (Regent’s University of London). Kepa spoke about the role of the intellectual in 1960s Cuba, using oral history interviews with protagonists of the revolutionary period in a paper entitled ‘Constructing identities in a contested setting: Cuba’s intellectual elite during and after the revolution’. Stephanie reflected on her oral history interviews with Cuban medical professionals, and she examined the impact of Cuban medical internationalism on identity construction. Based on life history narratives recorded in Cuba from 2004 to 2016, Elizabeth Dore explored the different ways Cubans experienced the loss of equality and the growth in inequality that has occurred in Cuban society over the past twenty-five years and the ways their memories about egalitarianism have changed. Daliany talked about gender roles and the division of labour in the private sphere during the Cuban Special Period, 1990-2005. Based on oral history narratives with Cuban women, she discussed how gender roles and the division of labour in the private sphere were affected during the period, arguing that despite current perceptions of a lack of change, there were in fact subtle shifts to gender roles and the traditional division of labour.

In the afternoon, the focus broadened out to include the wider region with papers from Jasmine Gideon (Birbeck, University of London), Ricardo Leizaola (Goldsmiths, University of London), Karen Tucker (University of Bristol) who joined us via Skype. Karen talked about her work on the Quipu project, a collaboration between two academics at the University of Bristol, transmedia documentary collective Chaka Studio and women’s organisations in the provinces of Piura, Cusco and Pucallpa. The project uses mobile phones to collect and share testimonies of those affected by forced sterilisation programme in Peru in the late 1990s. Jasmine discussed her oral histories Chilean exiles living in the UK, focusing on their coping strategies and how these are shaped by gender. Ricardo reflected on his involvement documenting oral history, ethnographic and ethnobiological knowledge in El Pedregal, an urban working-class community in Caracas. His account focused on his long-term collaboration with four generations of the same family.

Finally, the day finished with an amazing photo exhibition by Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca (aka Olisam), (University of Sussex) entitled ‘The Family as a space for gender transition’. By reflecting on contemporary images of transgender individuals in relation to their family, in her work Olga seeks to query the focus on gender transition as a contemporary, individual process, and re-locate it in personal and family histories.

The workshop was an extremely interesting day which led to academic researchers using oral history in Latin America and the Caribbean and beyond coming together in discussion and collaboration.

Angela Davis (University of Warwick)



‘Oral History Week’ at Warwick

During the week beginning the 13th November ’17 we held an ‘Oral History Week’ at Warwick as part of our re-launch of the Warwick Oral History Network. Our aim at the network is to provide opportunities for anyone involved or thinking about getting involved in oral history (or any related area) to come together to share ideas, our experiences, and best practice. The nature of running a network for researchers in higher education is that our population is fluid as new and existing colleagues move in and out of the field – and of course the institution itself. In consequence, every couple of years we need to remind people of who we are and what we do, and to encourage new members to join us. WOHN

This year the network has been very fortunate to have Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, based in Global Sustainable Development, join me as a co-organiser, and also cementing the interdisciplinary nature of our network, which we have always seen to be a key strength of our group. With the goal of fostering new connections, chances for discussion, and potentialities for collaboration in mind, Stéphanie and I decided to hold an ‘Oral History Week’ as a way of advertising the network to our Warwick Colleauges.

We kicked off the week with a joint seminar with the Centre for the History of Medicine on the 14th where Kathleen Vongsathorn, a historian from our History department here, gave a fascinating paper on “The Place of Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Birth Attendants and Choices about childbirth in C20 Uganda”. Kathleen’s research is based upon hundreds of oral history interviews conducted with mothers, midwives and other medical practitioners, traditional birth attendants, and community leaders throughout Uganda.

Kathleen then joined us the following day for a workshop on conducting oral history research where she, Stéphanie, myself and Alison Ribeiro de Menezes (Modern Languages) talked about our own experiences of oral history. We had a diverse range of experiences to reflect on: Alison spoke about beginning a new project about Chilean exiles, as someone coming from a background in Literature and new to oral history research; I discussed my experiences of using archived oral history interviews for my current project on Jewish motherhood in England and Israel, and how this compared to my previous research where I had conducted my own interviews; Stéphanie talked about the challenges she has faced in finding interviewees among Cuban medical practitioners, the difficulties of securing their trust, and the ethical implications involved; and Kathleen shared her experiences of conducting oral history interviews in Uganda, including working with translators, and the challenges this can bring. A really rich and interesting question and answer session followed where we discussed.

Our final event of the week took place on the 16th, where we were very luck to be joined by Nathalie Nguyen of Monash University who presented her oral history research with Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. Her talk, and the discussion that followed, touched on many interesting areas, such as the importance of generational difference in the interviewer/interviewee relationship and the role of language in the shaping of a narrative. It was a great end to a really successful week and we look forward to another ‘Oral History Week’ in the spring!

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

Oral History and Cuba: challenges and successes


By Dr. Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla
Assistant Professor in Global Sustainable Development and Co-director of the Warwick Oral History Network
University of Warwick

Last month, the first Special Issue on Oral History and Cuba was published by the Oral History journal (Vol. 45 No. 2). It presents papers on vary varied areas of Cuban society, with a particular focus on the way oral historians and participants address sensitive topics while doing oral history research in a communist country such as Cuba.
The project of this special issue started in the fall of 2014. Olga Saavedra de Oca and I came up with the idea of organising a workshop on Oral History and Cuba. We both struggle with the fact that doing research on Cuba can sometimes be quite challenging because researchers are often too easily added to an ideological box that either supports the Castro brothers’ revolution or criticizes it. In this case, we decided to organize an event that would unite academics from Cuba and from Miami, as well as academics in the UK working on Cuban exile or Cuban society within Cuba. Although this might seem challenging to some, it was a real success. The event took place in 2015 at Aston University, we were lucky to have, among others, Maria Estorino, former Chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, Dr. Ana Vera Estrada, renown oral historian from the Instituto de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello in Havana, Professor Elizabeth Dore, oral history expert on Cuba here in the UK, as well as Professor Paul Thompson, who attended the event and offered some excellent concluding remarks.
The event was so well received that we both agreed we had to continue with this initiative and we decided to submit a proposal for a Special Issue, which would go in the same direction: present work of academics from varied backgrounds and perspectives on Cuba, but who all have the same goal in mind: offer a voice to the Cuban people to complement the existing official history of the Cuban Revolution. The Oral History journal was interested in our proposal and the result of this collaboration has recently been published in the latest issue of Oral History.
The Special Issue starts with an introduction, co-written by Olga Saavedra de Oca and myself as guest editors, on dealing with sensitive topics in communist countries. Here, we attempt to provide an overview of oral history research in Cuba. Cuba is of particular interest because it is one of the few countries –with China—where oral history research is carried out while the communist regime is still in place. Passerini has referred to the limited representation of oral history research in communist countries , however this special issue shows that despite the limitations, oral history research in Cuba is possible and it is taking place and growing.
The five papers presented in the special issue offer varied perspectives of diverse areas of Cuban society, such as family, memory, migration, collective identity, sexuality and gender. However, each of them focuses in particular on the way in which sensitive topics are addressed in the oral history interview by both, researcher and participants, and how the different approaches impact on the interview process itself.
My article presents the story of two Cuban doctors who worked as internationalist healthcare professionals in the 1980 in Nicaragua, but then struggled to re-adapt to Cuban life upon their return. This led them to leave Cuba and move to the United States with their families. However, in both cases, the life that was expecting them there was nothing like the American dream they had hoped for. By allowing these two men to share their side of the story, the paper reflects on the admirable Cuban internationalist solidarity programme and on the impact it has on its participants.
The second article by Kepa Artaraz (University of Brighton) presents the analysis of collective identity construction within the Cuban intellectual cultural world. It explores the crucial role played by the intellectuals within the revolutionary process, as well as their limitations when trying to define themselves as individuals and as a group while remaining within the limits of the Cuban revolutionary discourse.
Artaraz’ paper is followed by Ana Vera Estrada’s article on the closure of the sugar mills in the Cuban provinces of Matanzas and Artemisa. In this paper, Vera Estrada presents the restructuring process, which took place in 2002, and the impact it had on the lives of workers. This closure was devastating for many, especially for the older generations, whose lives had revolved around sugar for several generations.
The fourth paper is by Dr. Daliany Kersh (King’s University) who analyses the social impact of the economic crisis of the 1990s, also known as the Special Period. Kersh explores in particular the additional burden that was put on women during that period, which has led to many referring to it as a feminised crisis. In this paper, Kersh discusses the possible reasons behind the discourse of the women she interviewed.
Finally, the last paper is by Olga Saavedra Montes de Oca (University of Sussex). This paper is a little different as it offers an interdisciplinary perspective on transgender and family in Cuba. By combining photography and oral history interviews to Cuban families with a transgender member, Saavedra analyses family as a space and place where identities are negotiated. She also explores the impact of having a transgender person among family members on the family as a whole.
The Special Issue ends with a conclusion by Elizabeth Dore, reflecting on the current situation of Oral History and Cuba, especially since the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were reinstated in December 2014.
Although it can still be challenging to do oral history in Cuba, each of these projects shows that there is indeed an oral history mini boom in Cuba taking place, as Elizabeth Dore calls it in her conclusion. And she adds: “The collection, taken as a whole, demonstrates the role of oral history as a way to challenge who talks about the past, and for what purposes.” The purpose of this special issue was to give a chance to the Cuban people themselves to tell their story of the Revolution, whether they still live in Cuba or are living in exile, and whether they support the revolutionary government or not.
We will be launching the special issue at our next workshop on Friday 23 February 2018 at the University of Warwick. More information will follow on the Warwick Oral History network webpage. All welcome!

Table of Content of the Special Issue:
“Dealing with sensitive topics in communist societies: oral history research in and on Cuba”, by Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla and Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca
“Cuban doctors in Sandinista Nicaragua: challenging orthodoxies” by Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla
“Constructing identities in a contested setting: Cuba’s intellectual elite during and after the Revolution” by Kepa Artaraz
“The closure of the sugar mills narrated by the workers” by Ana Vera Estrada
“’The epicentre of the crisis’: gender roles and the division of labour in the private sphere during the Cuban Special Period, 1990-2005” by Daliany Jerónimo Kersh
“Opening other closets: remembering as a transgender person and as a family member” by Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca
“Opening the tap: doing oral history in Cuba” by Elizabeth Dore

Conference report: OHS 2017 – Remembering Beliefs – The Shifting Worlds of Religion and Faith in Secular Society


This year’s Annual Conference of the Oral History Society took place on July 14th and 15th this year in conjunction with Newman University and Leeds Trinity University. The theme of the conference was belief and non-belief and the different ways in which the use and practice of oral history can bring new understandings to this complex subject.

In recent years, belief and non belief have developed new significance. What might once have been valued as something individual and private in many contexts only a generation ago can now be a matter of open identification and even confrontation and judgement. In seeking to understand what has changed, memory has an important part to play: identifying how belief and non belief have played out at the level of family, community and society; recognising how people engage in the practices of belief and experience the institutions of organised religion. For reasons perhaps of prejudice, perspective and communal difference oral historians have largely neglected the topic of belief and non belief.

As the conference programme noted, ‘oral history offers the possibility to move debate outside the confines of institutionalised religion both conceptually and practically, pushing the boundaries of what is meant by belief. Indeed, it offers the ideal approach to understanding manifestations of belief and secularism at an individual level while tracking their relationship to shifting expressions of broader cultural norms and the conferment of identity.’ Over the two days of the conference there were a range of papers that demonstrated the ways in which oral historians can open up the subject of belief and non belief in interesting and innovate ways. While diverse in topic, the speakers all spoke to the methodological challenges in understanding belief, secularism and religion, and particular panels considered how we might understand the process of secularisation through oral history testimonies; the inter-subjectivity in interviews on belief and non belief; the role belief plays in shaping memory; the interface of religion, belief and cultural/ national identities; belief and education; belief and non belief in social, political and cultural transformations; the shifting the narratives of religion away from an institutional base; gender and established religious institutions and sects and movements.

The three key note speakers offered many important insights on the nuances of belief and non belief and the how these are experienced. They also raised useful points about the issues of placing non belief within oral histories of religion and the challenges of terminology – what do we actually mean by the terms belief and non belief. In his paper on ‘Secularisation and the self: new theory from oral history’, Callum Brown showed us how oral history is a way of understanding religious decline. Tina Block’s paper, entitled, ‘Oral Histories of Unbelief: Exploring Narratives of Religious Decline in Postwar Canada’ revealed how some atheist parents baptised children so they wouldn’t be ostracised or seen as ‘weird’ and that some atheists in postwar Canada didn’t even discuss their non belief with their spouses, such was stigma. Finally, in her paper ‘Generations of (un) belief’ which drew on a number of different research projects she had carried out in the UK and in Egypt, Abby Day argued that we should see religion as a sub set of belief.

A further highlight for me was the really interesting panel on religion and its place in LGBTQ lives with papers by Jane Traies on the intersections of faith, belief and sexuality among older lesbians, George Severs on inter-generational oral histories of HIV/AIDS and George Townsend on seeing and being seen: public bathing, homosociality and homosexuality at ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ in Oxford. All in all it was another great conference and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference on ‘Dangerous Oral Histories: risks, responsibilities and rewards’ to be held at Queen’s University Belfast.


Angela Davis, University of Warwick


Book review: Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki, Oral History off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

Oral History off the Record

We are very good at writing about the powerful stories that our remarkable interviewees share with us, but the circumstances that led to their telling rarely appear in our work. This is unfortunate given that all of our projects are contingent upon the kinds of relationships we form with our interviewees. Tracing their evolution reveals how we build trust, establish limits, ask questions, and, ultimately, listen (Zembrzycki, 131).

The essays in Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, originated out of an international workshop Sheftel and Zembrzycki organized in April 2011 at Concordia University in Montreal entitled ‘Off the Record: Unspoken Negotiations in Oral History’. In the collection, the contributors reflect upon those elements of research using oral history that are not normally discussed, such as the conversations that were not recorded, the people who did not agree to be interviewed, and the relationships that were built up between interviewee and interviewer outside of the interview. Discussing the aim of the volume, the editors Anna Sheftel and Stacey Zembrzycki state, ‘Our goal is to explore how a more holistic approach to the interview might help us better understand the work we do and the people with whom we engage’ (7).

In the first part of the book, entitled, ‘Reflections on a Lifetime of Listening’, Sherna Berger Gluck, co-authors Julie Cruikshank and Tatiana Argounova-Low, and Joan Sangster discuss their own experiences of using oral history over many years and how their interviewing practices have changed. In the first chapter Gluck describes her experiences of two projects – interviewing early twentieth-century US feminists in the 1970s; and her research on women’s activist groups in the village of Kufr Nameh in Palestine between 1989 and 1994. She raises ethical questions about the issue of authority and how our decisions about what to ask and what to publish can affect the image of our interviewees, the information that we reveal, and the history that we make. She notes the importance of the very particular moment at which an interview is conducted, in respect to interviews with Palestinian women in intifada, within a space of a couple of years, things can completely change.  In addition, she explains how her experiences of interviewing Palestinian women have led her to question ‘our glorification of individual life history interviews’ (39).

The importance of collective narratives is also a central theme of Cruikshank and Argounova-Low’s chapter which considers Cruikshank’s long-term research in northwestern Canada and a collaborative project between Argounova-Low and Cruikshank in the Russian Far East in the mid-1990s. They found that ‘none of our collaborators took this as an opportunity to recount a personal narrative in any straightforward way—a genre often central to oral histories. Instead, narrators responded with what might be called classical stories, starting with ancient narratives and eventually linking them with events from recent history. Implicitly, foundational narratives provided reference points for talking about thoroughly modern issues or dilemmas they had confronted, scaffolding for framing life experiences’ (49).

In the final chapter in the first section, Joan Sangster discusses interviews she conducted with working-class and how she now approaches those interviews considering the developments in oral history theory that followed. Sangster notes that the last thirty years have seen two significant moments for oral history. ‘During the first moment of recuperation, circa the 1970s, our oral history praxis was often linked to new currents in social history and to the energy and goals of social movements for justice and equality. The second moment, 20 years later, was associated with more attention to memory, subjectivity, and identity, and to the influence of poststructuralist theory, with its skepticism about grand narratives, the unified self, and a knowable experience’ (59.). In the chapter Sangster explores the second moment by re-examining the interviews he had conducted during the first moment, ‘asking if and how a new emphasis on identity and memory enriched my analysis’ (66). She concludes that while the more recent focus on subjectivity has positively affected oral history theory and practice, the earlier political goals are still crucial.

The second part of the book looks at vulnerability in the oral history process. In the first chapter Martha Norkunas describes an interview she conducted with a woman dying of ovarian cancer. While being sensitive to the ethical issues involved, and her own role in shaping the interview through selecting the topics discussed (which may not have been the issues most important to her interviewee), Norkunas posits that oral history can nonetheless offer ‘a space for resolution or exploration of topics narrators may have been unable to pursue alone’ (93-4). Alan Wong explores the different challenges of being an outsider or insider to the community which one is interviewing amongst. In both of their chapters, Elizabeth Miller and Stacey Zembrzycki reflect on the transformative experiences for both researcher and narrator, that oral history can bring as the relationship between interviewer and interviewee develops over time.

In her introduction to the third part of the book Leyla Nezi explains that the authors of these chapters, ‘address the ways in which the positionality and politics of the researcher affect our interviewees’ stories and our own representations of them’ (145) In the first paper in the section Pamela Sugiman discusses how, after her research on Japanese-Canadian women interned during the Second World War was published, she received an email from a woman called Lois, who criticised her for presenting a partial picture of the experiences of the women involved. Sugiman reflects on her complicated relationship with Lois, whom she came to meet and interview, and how, while they remained at odds over the interpretation of the events, listening to Lois’ account helped her to understand the ‘relationship between personal memory and a wider public discourse’ (164). In her chapter Nadia Jones-Gailani reflects on her complicated relationship with her stepmother, who acted as her translator in the interviews she conducted with Iraqi women. Nancy Janovicek, using the example of her research on the back-to-the-land movement in Canada, notes that there is an assumption in recent historical work that people who were young in the 1960s shape their narratives according to the popularized tropes of the period. She argues however, that this may because ‘that is what we are listening for’ (195). Monica Eileen Patterson concludes the section with her account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). She describes how the TRC’s agenda shaped both the accounts witnesses gave and how they were presented to the wider world.

Finally, part four considers the issue of silence. As Erin Jesse notes in her introduction to the section: ‘Silence has long been a subject of interest among oral historians’ (219). The authors, Alexander Freund, Luis van Isschot, and Anna Sheftel look approach the theme in different ways. Freund reflects on two interviews he conducted when his interviewees gave him information which was not voiced on the recording, and the problems this posed for him in his analysis. van Isschot considers the silences which characterises the interviews of people living under situations of political violence, in his case the recent history of Colombia. Finally, Sheftel, explores what she terms, ‘the ‘Achilles’ heel of oral history’, namely that ‘we only hear the stories of the people who are willing to speak to us’. She argues that to ‘deepen our understandings of what it means to remember a complex past, we should, at the very least, attempt to understand why those who refuse us make this choice’ (256).

In sum, Oral History off the Record is an extremely rich and diverse collection dealing with the wide spectrum of methodological and analytical challenges that undertaking oral history brings, but often go unspoken. It is therefore a very welcome contribution to scholarship on the process of oral history.

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

Makers of Modern Biomedicine: Testimonies and Legacy

‘My memory of almost all the things you want to hear about is extremely faulty and where it is not faulty, it tends to be erroneous, so don’t trust too much.’

Dr Archie Norman at the Witness Seminar on ‘Cystic Fibrosis’, 08/01/2004. Image: Wellcome Library.

Dr Archie Norman, who sadly passed away last month aged 104, made this self-effacing comment during the Wellcome Witness Seminar on Childhood Asthma and Beyond, [1] and it seems to sum up many of the problems inherent in oral history. The frailty of memory; the desire to capture and preserve the recollection of past events provides the impetus behind many an oral history project. The unreliability of memory serves as one of its pitfalls.[2]

Over 20 years ago Dr Tilli Tansey, a former neuroscientist who had completed a second PhD in the history of medicine and was now working at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, organised a meeting bringing together historians, scientists, clinicians and others with an interest in the topic of monoclonal antibodies. Amongst those participating were the Nobel Prize winners, César Milstein and Georges Köhler. Far from a subject solely of interest to scientists, the failure of British Government-funded  institutions to exploit commercially this biotech breakthrough via patents had reportedly incensed the former industrial chemist Margaret Thatcher, who viewed this lack of commercial savvy as little short of scandalous.[3]

Dr Basil Bard, Dr Georges Köhler, Sir Christopher Booth, Prof César Milstein, Mr John Newell at the Witness Seminar on ‘Monoclonal Antibodies’, 24/09/1993. Image: Wellcome Library.

The interest that this meeting generated amongst the audience that day, particularly the way in which the ‘hybrid vigour’ of having both historians and members of the scientific community in attendance illuminated details and elucidated nuances that certainly did not form part of the published scientific papers, convinced Dr (now Professor) Tansey that this method could add something important to the historical record. What’s more, the fact that this was a group endeavour where participants were free to either agree or disagree amongst themselves could be construed as a sort of real-time ‘peer review’, where perhaps the faultiness of memory, whether through forgetfulness or habitual repetition, could be challenged.

The transcript of that meeting became the first in a series, initially entitled Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine, latterly Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Medicine. Similarly, the Research Group has gone through a number of iterations: changes in personnel and host institution, though always with Professor Tansey at the helm, and enjoying financial support from the Wellcome Trust.  Now forming part of the School of History at Queen Mary University of London, the current Strategic Award, Makers of Modern Biomedicine: Testimonies and Legacy, funds a website which is home to all the material the Group has published over the years. In keeping with the early embrace of ‘Open Access’, every published Witness Seminar is freely available to download as a .pdf file. There are now more than 60 of these online (the first two published volumes comprising transcripts of four meetings in each volume). In 2014 the 50th volume was published: a special commemorative ‘A–Z’ featuring highlights from previous Witness Seminars. The intention was to create a publication which was accessible; easy to dip-in and dip-out of. It can be downloaded here.

Additionally, the website features a growing number of oral history interviews with key individual contributors under the rubric Clips and Conversations. Initially the interviewee will undergo an in-depth interview about his/her life and career. The edited transcripts of these are available via the Queen Mary Research Online repository as part of the Group’s Digital Collection. After the initial audio interview, a shorter video interview is filmed. These are all conducted following standard oral history methodology, and have received ethical approval (reference QMREC 0642). Video interview transcripts are edited for clarity and factual accuracy. Five main questions form the framework for the interviews:  ‘How did you become interested in medicine or science?’; ‘What do you consider to be your greatest achievement, or what are you proudest of in your career?’; ‘Did anything go wrong along the way?’; ‘What were the most significant changes in your field over your working career?’; ‘What do you foresee in the next 30 or 40 years in your field of expertise?’.

The ways in which interviewees choose to interpret and respond to these questions are as diverse as the personalities of those involved. The questions simply act as jumping-off points. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always interesting – it is my job as Multimedia Manager to film, edit and subsequently package this footage into thematic ‘clips’.

Professor Shirley Hodgson, screen capture from a video interview, held 04/11/2015. Image: Wellcome Library.

Many of these interviews linger in the memory. The geneticist Professor Shirley Hodgson’s childhood home must have been an exceptional environment in which to grow-up. The daughter of the great polymath Lionel Penrose, and sister to Oxford mathematician Sir Roger, Chess Grandmaster Jonathan, and theoretical physicist Oliver, her own interest in science was fostered by exhuming family pets:

‘… I used to bury them in the garden, and then I used to go into the garden a few months later and dig them up and boil them, and pull off the flesh, and then I would string the vertebrae onto a coat hanger and so in my bedroom there was a little display of skeletons of animals. So, I used to like finding out how things worked.’[4]

Neuropharmacologist Professor Charles Marsden’s mother was a psychiatric social worker at Fulbourn Mental Hospital. He recalled his mother taking him there when he was just a boy in the late 1940s, and seeing a ‘…big sort of lion’s cage in the garden where the patients were allowed to be’ and witnessing the ‘…strange behaviour of the people that were there.’

‘… quite often she used to bring some [patients] home and they would help us plant potatoes and things like that, and stay the night and have extraordinary tales to tell at breakfast time about whom they’d met in the night and so forth, the Queen and such like, total fantasies of course. And then it occurred to me that there was some link I suppose, in later years I realised there was a link with what I’d experienced as a child and these people and the problems that seemed to be increasing around the world, particularly in relation to depression and mental health.’[5]

One of the most fascinating aspects of our research is how great innovation comes about. It is sometimes born out of a flash of insight. Mr Wes Miner’s account of how his colleague Gareth Sanger came to the realisation that 5-HT3 antagonism was responsible for the anti-emetic activity of the compounds they were studying is a good example of one so-called “Eureka moment”.[6] As a result of this Miner and his fellow pharmacologists were able to develop the drugs to combat the nausea-inducing side effects of chemotherapy which have become so helpful for those undergoing treatment.

As we enter the final six months of our project I find myself reflecting on the words of Sir Mark Walport, UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor and author of the Foreword to the aforementioned 50th volume:

‘It is people who innovate and it is the people who scintillate…Their values and personalities come to the fore: humane, free-thinking, always wanting to try new things, to innovate. Their personality traits are also apparent, a cast of individualists and eccentrics, stubborn and cussedly single-minded, accompanied by a strong common denominator of caring and humane compassion.’ [7]

The aim of our project has been to capture something of those personalities for posterity. As with all oral histories, the testimonies we record can only ever be partial. The voices of those departed will always be missing. What we can record of interviewees is, as Archie Norman pointedly remarked, subject to the vagaries of human memory. All we can do is try to ensure that these testimonies will be available for future historians of medicine, to make of them what they will.

Alan Yabsley

Multimedia Manager, Makers of Modern Biomedicine project, School of History, Queen Mary University of London



[1] Reynolds L A, Tansey E M. (eds) (2001) Childhood Asthma and Beyond. Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine, vol. 11. London: The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

[2] See, for example, Tansey E M. (2006) Witnessing the witnesses: potentials and pitfalls of the witness seminar in the history of twentieth-century medicine. In: Doel R E, Söderqvist T. (eds) The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology and Medicine: Writing recent science. London: Routledge, 260–78.

[3] What is biotechnology. A missed opportunity? The patent saga http://www.whatisbiotechnology.org/exhibitions/milstein/patents. Retrieved 06/12/16.

[4] Tansey E M (intvr); Yabsley A (prod) (2016) Hodgson, Shirley: 01 – How and why did you become interested in science? (04-Nov-2015). History of Modern Biomedicine Interviews (Digital Collection), item e2016011. London: Queen Mary University of London.

[5] Tansey E M (intvr); Yabsley A (prod) (2016) Marsden, Charles: 01 – A Cambridge childhood (19-Apr-2016). History of Modern Biomedicine Interviews (Digital Collection), item e2016084. London: Queen Mary University of London.

[6] Tansey E M (intvr); Yabsley A (prod) (2016) Miner, Wesley: 05 – Nausea and vomiting – the ferret model (15-Jul-2016). History of Modern Biomedicine Interviews (Digital Collection), item e2016100. London: Queen Mary University of London.

[7] Jones E M, Tansey E M. (eds) (2014) Monoclonal Antibodies to Migraine: Witnesses to Modern Biomedicine, an A–Z. Wellcome Witnesses to Contemporary Medicine, vol. 50. London: Queen Mary, University of London.