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Linking letters across archives

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By | From the Collections, The Researcher’s View

On a recent visit to the Library, archivist Karen Rushton made some interesting connections between letters in the Wellcome Library archives and others in archives at the University of Manchester Library.

By their very nature, correspondence by particular individuals often end up distributed across a range of archival collections at different institutions. It may be necessary for a researcher to consult the catalogues of several archives to make the most of the research potential of these items. This is the case for some correspondence held by the Manchester University Library, which could inform letters held by the Wellcome Library and vice versa.

Letter from John Hunter.

Extract from letter by John Hunter. University of Manchester Library reference: JHU/1.

An 18th century letter (University of Manchester Library reference JHU/1) from the famous surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) to an unknown surgeon in Hampshire relates his recommendations for the treatment of a female patient with a lump in the breast. In this case, Hunter advises against surgery. Instead, he describes a lotion to be applied via a compress directly to the skin, with surgery only to be resorted to if this has no effect.

Letters from Hunter can also be found in the Wellcome Library, including MS.7887, MS.8619, MS.8423 and MS.5234, with the latter two letters discussing a patient’s treatment. The letters provide an insight into the practice of the leading anatomists of the 18th century and Hunter’s advice being sought by his contemporaries demonstrates his standing in the sphere of medicine and surgery at this time.

By approaching these letters together rather than focusing on them as individual items, the picture created of Hunter’s position and the advice sought from and given by him becomes much clearer.

Letter bearing signature of Joseph Lister

Letter bearing signature of Joseph Lister. University of Manchester Library reference: FCC/1/1-3.

Another collection of correspondence held at the Manchester University Library comprises 14 letters relating to the industrial and analytical chemist Frederick Crace Calvert (1819-1873). Calvert was born in London but moved to Manchester in 1846 at the age of 25 and later established his own company, F C Calvert & Co.

He worked closely with the textile industry manufacturing dyes and bleaches, but he also had a strong interest in the application of chemistry to matters of medicine and public health. Three of the letters dating from 1867 to 1871 (University of Manchester Library reference FCC/1/1-3) are authored by the pioneer of antiseptic surgery, Joseph Lister.

Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister [1827 – 1912], British surgeon

The Right Honourable Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister (1827 – 1912). Wellcome Library no. 14436i.

Calvert’s industrial scale production of carbolic acid was intrinsic to Lister’s work. Significantly, it is also known that Calvert had recognised the public health benefits arising from the use of carbolic acid some time before the publication of Lister’s innovative research. In the three surviving letters that Lister writes to Calvert, he not only discusses receiving further supplies of carbolic acid but the form it comes in. He also gives a detailed description of the antiseptic dressings he is trying to create from oakum and carbolised tar.

A significant collection of Lister’s personal papers and correspondence can be found in the Wellcome Library, including MS.6182-MS.6200 and MS.6961-MS.6989, concerning both personal and professional matters. The three letters to Calvert held by Manchester University complement these well by offering additional details into some of his most important work.

Use of Lister carbolic spray in surgery, 1882.

Use of Lister carbolic spray. Illustration from Antiseptic Surgery by William Watson Cheyne, 1882.

While a single item of correspondence can offer much in its content to a particular piece of research, on its own it may still leave many unanswered questions regarding its wider context. By linking together the letters held in different collections and across several different archives a fuller and richer insight into the individual or the subject matter can be achieved.

Author: Karen Rushton is a medical archivist at the University of Manchester Library.

Karen is currently cataloguing the Manchester Medical Society manuscripts (18th-19th centuries). For more information, please contact the John Rylands Library at The University of Manchester. Email: uml.manarc@manchester.ac.uk.

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