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Recently Uncovered Photograph Collection Reveals Extraordinary Insight into pre-NHS Healthcare

  • Historic England digitises more than 4,000 recently uncovered medical archive photographs with Wellcome Trust funding
  • Collection being made accessible to the public for the first time, to mark 70 years of the National Health Service
  • Four former nurses who worked during the 1940s and '50s share their memories of the era
  • Free resources for secondary school history teachers will help students learn about the history of medicine

A fascinating collection of more than 4,000 photographs uncovered in the Historic England Archive is giving up its secrets after more than 70 years, and is now accessible to the public.

Staff at Historic England’s Archive in Swindon recently discovered 4,050 black and white photographic prints documenting healthcare in Britain between 1938 and 1943.

Capturing hospital staff, patients, procedures and practices, the images provide an invaluable and extraordinary insight into medical and nursing practices during the Second World War, and immediately before the foundation of the National Health Service.

22 Sep 1938. Nurses on stationary cycles in gym at the new Albert Dock Hospital, Alnwick Road, London. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0010
22 Sep 1938. Nurses on stationary cycles in gym at the new Albert Dock Hospital, Alnwick Road, London. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0010

Wellcome Trust funded

Thanks to grant funding from the Wellcome Trust 2,100 images have been digitised as part of the year-long project to conserve, catalogue and digitise the entire collection. The collection is being made accessible to a wide audience for the first time and can be viewed and searched online.

Historic England has also produced resources for secondary school teachers to help students explore the history of medicine as we mark 70 years of the National Health Service in July.

The photographs were taken by the Topical Press Agency, but how and when they were acquired by the Archive remains a mystery. They record improvised wartime hospital wards, blood donation and transfusion, infection control, treatment of burns and early plastic surgery, alongside nurses in training and relaxing in their time off.

Each photograph is accompanied by a typed description which gives extensive background information including date, location and details of equipment and procedure. Many descriptions also include the names of the doctors and nurses shown as well as captions that capture the zeitgeist of the era, such as “the cares of house-keeping and raising a family can play havoc with a mother’s looks and bodily shapeliness.”

"Peckham mothers can keep that schoolgirl figure." 31 Oct 1938. A group of women taking part in an exercise class at the Pioneer Health Centre, St Mary's Road, London. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0040

Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s Chief Executive, said: “The Historic England Archive is full of countless gems but the Topical Press Agency images are particularly striking. Thanks to the Wellcome Trust we are able to conserve these photographs and share them with new audiences. They have the potential to expand our knowledge of wartime medical practice and revolutionary treatments and help us delve deeper into the history of healthcare.”

Abigail Coats, Archive Cataloguing Officer at Historic England, said: “Working with this collection everyday has been fascinating and a real joy. The photographs reveal health and welfare provision at a time of social upheaval and change. But they also show staff having fun and unwinding after a long working day. You can see just how far some medical developments have come, but also what has stayed largely unchanged. I’m very proud to be a part of bringing this unique collection back to life and that we’re able to share this fantastic resource with the public.”

Chris Hassan, from Wellcome’s Humanities and Social Science team, said: “These unique images offer a wealth of insights and surprises. Taken at a time of transition and rapid development for healthcare in the UK, these photos bring to life this fascinating period of medical history.”

Discover the collection

Memories of nursing

We showed the collection to four nurses who trained and worked in hospitals in the North West in the 1940s and '50s. From bedpans and cut-throat razors to drainpipe climbing and hospital superstitions, watch Dorothy, Audrey, Margaret and Jean's testament to the spirit of the age.

Extraordinary insight into pre-NHS healthcare

The Army Blood Supply Depot, based at Bristol’s Southmead Hospital, was established in 1938 and began collecting blood from local donors in summer 1939. Blood was ‘pooled’ after a day’s worth of donations, refrigerated and then separated. During the campaign in France in 1940, the Army Blood Supply Depot provided nearly all the blood and plasma required.

By the end of the Second World War 1,300 units of blood were being supplied to military hospitals each day. But whole blood was difficult to transport to overseas battlefields so investigation into using plasma instead grew.

The use of plasma as a substitute for whole blood transfusions was proposed as early as 1918, but the outbreak of the Second World War stimulated extensive research in this field. Investigations between 1939 and 1941 by researchers including Tatum, Elliot and Nesset led to important medical advances being made in a short space of time. ‘A Technique for the Preparation of a Substitute for Whole Blood Adaptable for Use During War Conditions’ was published in December 1939. Plasma was considered ideal for treating shock as it helped increase blood volume quickly and did not require blood type matching.

Liquid plasma had been used at the start of the war but it was soon discovered that you could dehydrate blood to make dried plasma. Dried plasma was quick to make in large quantities and easier to store and transport. By combining dried plasma with distilled water, a transfusion could be ready in three minutes. New techniques were later developed in the 1950s and dried blood plasma was replaced.

Education

We offer a range of free resources and run the award-winning Heritage Schools programme. New teaching resources related to the collection:

9 August 1940. Two men transferring blood from small bottles into large bottles in the Army Blood Supply Depot at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0922
9 August 1940. Two men transferring blood from small bottles into large bottles in the Army Blood Supply Depot at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. Source: Historic England Archive MED01/01/0922
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