Alison Scott, Project Archivist, Glasgow City Archives
The Wellcome Trust is funding a project to catalogue the records of the Glasgow Public Health Department and its predecessor authorities.
Glasgow paid a heavy price for being the ‘second city of the empire’. Rapid industrialisation led to over-crowding and dangerous levels of pollution. The resulting effects on the health of the people were profound. In 1895 the Public Health Department was formed, as the city attempted to address these effects. Under its succession of dedicated Medical Officers of Health it slowly created a better city.
The Department’s work lent itself to statistical analysis and the ultimate expression of this was the annual report of the Medical Officer of Health. The Department used the report both to quantify the issues and illustrate their progress. They date from 1863, when the first Medical Officer of Health was appointed, and the amount of information in them increases over time with a typical report from 1913 having 58 tables as appendices as well as further statistics in sections on population; maternity and child welfare; infectious diseases; respiratory diseases and tuberculosis; venereal disease; the work of the Port Local Authority; housing; Bacteriological Laboratory; food; air purification; and the work of the hospitals.
The annual reports are supported by files of raw data used to compile them, along with weekly and fortnightly returns of mortality statistics (1844-1973); and reports on specific events such as the typhoid outbreak in 1880 and the influenza epidemic in 1957. Although not all the administrative files of the Department have survived, those that there are in the collection also help to add meat to the bones of the ‘official version’.
The collection also contains the Department’s working records such as reports on housing conditions and insanitary tenements (1920); returns of infectious diseases (1920-1973); prosecutions for smoke pollution (1899-1960); and files on the wartime inspection of shipping.
Apart from the core records other resources include 137 newspaper cuttings files on a wide variety of health and social subjects (1907-1939); publications by the Department (1897-1974); and a large number of glass negatives and lantern slides.
Work is already finished on the departmental records themselves and an item-level list of this important collection is available for the first time.
The project has not stopped with the records of the Department, however. Acknowledging the complicated history of health functions in Glasgow, the current work of the project is to re-catalogue the Police records. In the 19th century policing the city was seen as much more than a crime-fighting operation. Records of the Board of Police and its committees date from 1800 and cover such subjects as health, hospitals, cleansing, and sewage disposal.
The project is similarly extended to the records of the burghs absorbed into the city through boundary extensions as they also had public health functions. Their records will be re-catalogued, including a substantial amount of previously unavailable material.
The quotation in the title come from the sermon given at the funeral in 1904 of James Burn Russell, Glasgow and Scotland’s first full time Medical Officer of Health. The minister presiding looked to a future where there would be ‘a corporate humanity, a public virtue, a body-politic with its laws, duties and responsibilities’. He saw Russell as having fought against both ignorance and selfishness to create a model of his work in sanitation for the rest of the world to follow.
An online article in celebration of James Burn Russell, Glasgow’s first full time Medical Officer of Health, can be found at: http://bit.ly/2dxyiZl
For further information contact Alison Scott, Project Archivist: firstname.lastname@example.org.