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March 2020

Cataloguing of the post mortem volumes is well under way and our project archivists are unearthing an incredible amount of data.  All of this will be accessible in the catalogued records, but a traditional hierarchical archives catalogue does not produce an immediate visual impact, so our archives team have been experimenting with different ways of looking at the data and exposing new, and sometimes surprising, aspects behind the numbers. Expect more blog posts on the subject, but in the meanwhile here are some examples.

Occupations in post mortem casebooks, 1841-1917

The first visualisation gives an overview of occupations found within the records. Occupations were routinely entered as part of the basic information collected from all the patients, and the data shows typical occupations of the period and of the area. The majority of the patients came from the slums of Westminster, or worked as servants in the Hyde Park area, which explains the prevalence of labourers, painters, porters, cooks, servants and coachmen. The largest categories for occupations are in building and construction, domestic service, transport and food, drink and accommodation services – traditional working class jobs. Women did not have many occupations available, and besides working as servants, housemaids, cleaners and dressmakers, many of the women are simply designated as ‘married’, or their occupation is listed as that of their husband (‘husband baker’, ‘husband soldier’ and so on). Children are sometimes listed as schoolgirls- or boys, but they, too, are mostly defined by their fathers’ occupations, or mothers’ if the mother was unmarried.

Using Flourish you can zoom in and explore the occupations in more detail, as well as see changes over time by filtering the data by a year (we’ll be adding more years to the graph as we catalogue more material!): whereas agricultural and horse-related occupations such as stableman or groom were fairly common in the mid-19th century, by 1917 they have almost entirely disappeared, more manufacturing jobs have appeared and ‘armed forces’ has emerged as the largest category – although soldiers were mostly away fighting, their wives and children stayed at home.  And see if you can find our favourite occupation of cats’ meat man, someone who sold cat food from carts and was undoubtedly very popular among the neighbourhood kitties!

 Number of post mortems annually, 1841-1917

The second graph shows the number of post mortem cases annually, in 1841-1917. Although it’s a very simple image, it shows how the number of cases varied year by year, and can help reveal circumstances and connections behind the numbers.  There are some notable spikes, and 1854, for instance, looks markedly different from the years on either side.  Looking at the data in more detail there is an obvious explanation – 1854 is the year of a large cholera outbreak in London, the one that led John Snow to identify the handle of a water pump on Broad Street in Soho as the origin of the disease.  St George’s Hospital, which at the time was at Hyde Park Corner, was where most of the patients came to.  On the other hand, the closure of the hospital in 1874 for three months to improve the fire safety accounts for the dip in the number of post mortems for that year.

The first 10,000 post mortem cases have now been catalogued and will be freely accessible via our online archive catalogue in the coming weeks.

January 2020

Two project archivists, Dr Juulia Ahvensalmi and Natasha Shillingford, joined St George’s, University of London in August 2019 to catalogue the post mortem examinations and case books.  To date, a total of 8,346 cases have been catalogued.

Each individual post mortem is being catalogued according to international standards and a summary of each is being produced.  Subject access points are also being identified using the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) database, which will allow researchers to search and identify cases by disease and anatomy group. The catalogue data and digitised images will start to be made available on the St George’s, University of London website over the upcoming months.  Interesting and unusual cases from the post mortem volumes are also being featured on the joint Pathology Museum and Archives FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

A large amount of data is being collected during the cataloguing process and the project is exploring how this data can be interpreted with the use of visualisation tools.  For example, word clouds have been created using the catalogue data to illustrate which occupations or diseases were most common for a particular year.

In November the Archives held the event ‘Explore Your Archives: Opening up the Body’ which explored the post mortem examinations and case books alongside other related materials held in the Archives and Special Collections at St George’s, University of London.

Juulia and Natasha will soon be visiting the London Metropolitan Archives to view other material relating to St George’s Hospital which is held by LMA and the Royal College of Surgeons.  They hope to learn more about the fascinating history of St George’s Hospital, including the surgeons and physicians whose names frequently appear in the post mortem examinations.

Spring 2019

Our Archives and Special Collections has been awarded a grant for £160,000 from the Wellcome Trust for a project to conserve, digitise and catalogue the post mortem examinations and case books of St George’s Hospital.

The case books, dating from 1841-1946, are deemed to be of outstanding value to researchers in the medical humanities. Once accessible, the case books will contribute towards our understanding of mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century hospital practice, popular contemporary scientific and medical approaches, and medical education.

Furthermore, the case books feature detailed autopsy reports written by noted surgeons including Henry Gray, Caesar Hawkins and Timothy Holmes, and later eminent figures such as Claude Frankau and William Duke-Elder.  Such reports include an analysis of the bones, joints, muscles and organs. From the 1880s onwards, the case books contain original anatomical drawings.  Until now, scholars have been largely unaware of the existence of these original works.

In 2018, the case books were sent to the London Conservation Centre in Northampton where the leather covers were treated for a condition known as ‘red rot’.  They were then transferred to the London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell where the interior pages have been repaired and digitised.  We are happy to confirm that the conservation and digitisation work is now complete and the materials are due to be brought home to St George’s, University of London.

Two project archivists will begin cataloguing the post mortem volumes this summer.  Once this final stage is complete, the images and catalogue data will be freely available to researchers and members of the general public via our online archive catalogue.

 A photo of the St George's Post Mortem Register 1860


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