Tag Archives: Medicine

95. A Letter to the Lancet: the story of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War

On 20 January 1951, at the height of the Korean War, seven distinguished doctors published a letter in the Lancet expressing concern about the arms race, the impact of arms spending on healthcare (“each pound spent on bombs means … more dead babies now”) and the apathetic drift towards another world war.

Signatories to letter of 20 Jan 1951 in the Lancet

Signatories to letter of 20 Jan 1951 in the Lancet

The signatories (Richard Doll, Alfred Esterman, Ian Gilliland, Horace Joules, Duncan Leys,  Lionel Penrose, and Martin Pollock) argued that doctors could use their unique expertise and authority to work towards disarmament:

“We appeal to all our fellow doctors who think there may yet be an alternative to merely providing treatment for casualties ; we ask them to join us, in the spirit of our chosen profession of healing, in doing all in their power to halt preparation for war …”

The letter provoked many responses, to the Lancet and privately.  Not all agreed with its perspective.  Doll et al. summed up and tried to refute those arguments in a further letter in February.

Typescript of first paragraph of letter to the Lancet 17 February 1951

Typescript of first paragraph of letter to the Lancet 17 February 1951

Some respondents had argued that war and peace were political matters which should not be discussed in a medical journal.  The seven profoundly disagreed: “Doctors have a social responsibility as well as a personal one to their patients ; they have an ethical tradition and an international allegiance.  War is a symptom of mental ill health.  Its results include wounds and disease.  Doctors are therefore properly concerned in preventing it”.

The February letter called for a forum to discuss how doctors could put these ideas into action.  The resulting event, held in London on 16 March and chaired by Dr Joules, was attended by 130 doctors and led to the founding of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW).

Detail from cover of MAPW Journal June 1983

Detail from cover of MAPW Journal June 1983

Over its forty year lifespan, MAPW brought the expertise and authority of doctors and, later, other medical professionals to many issues via its publications, conferences and advocacy: nuclear weapons, chemical and biological warfare, radiation, terrorism, the medical needs of developing countries, even expressing concern about the bellicose lyrics of national anthems.  It was explicitly politically independent, though accused of being a communist front and proscribed by the Labour Party during the 1950s.

In 1992, MAPW merged with the Medical Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (MCANW), which had been founded in 1980. A merger had been discussed since the mid-1980s but, as Dr Alex Poteliakhoff observed in a position paper in 1990 “the changing international and global scene, namely the collapse of the cold war, hesitant moves towards nuclear disarmament” and increased public concern about environment and quality of life meant both organisations needed to rethink their missions to survive and be useful.

Medact logo, from press release of April 1992

Medact logo, from press release of April 1992

Given their long-term collaboration on joint conferences and projects such as the Medical Educational Trust (not to mention shared office and fax machine!), a merger made sense.   The result was Medact, which continues to bring together health professionals working for a “fairer, better and safer world”.

I decided to write about medical campaigners this week as I recently learned that the Wellcome Library plan to catalogue the substantial and hitherto inaccessible MCANW and Medact archives they hold.   I look forward to working with the Wellcome to promote the distinctive archives of medical professional campaigns to researchers in many disciplines.

Sources: quotations and images from MAPW Archive (references H2, M3, M10.  Note that we are about to release a new edition of the Archive catalogue).  I am indebted also to Physicians and the Peace Movement, by Nick Lewer (Cass, 1992) and many published and unpublished articles in the Archive concerning the history of the association.

Postscript (18 December 2013): the catalogue of this Archive is now online as part of our Quick Wins programme.  Find it on the MAPW webpage in PDF and Word format.

92. The Story of Skeleton A8: Dr Calvin Wells and Leprosy in Saxon England

This week we look at one of the most influential articles written by Dr Calvin Wells, identifying a very early case of leprosy (Hansen’s disease): “as far as I know, the earliest British example to be described”.

Feet of Saxon leprosy case A8.

What remained of the feet of the Saxon man Dr Wells believed had leprosy. This image appeared with Dr Wells’ article. Copyright unknown, possibly Dr Wells though there is correspondence relating to photography of these bones by others.

Dr Wells, as we already saw, brought his medical training to the study of human bones, exploring the diseases and accidents from which past people suffered: palaeopathology.  He had often seen skeletons showing signs of possible leprosy, but he had been cautious in proclaiming them as cases of that disease.  There were so many other conditions that could produce a similar appearance in the bones of feet, hands or face.  In this case, however, having considered all the possibilities, he was sure.

CAL 1_16 Notes on leprosy Beckford A8 detail

Notes by Dr Calvin Wells on skeleton A8 at Beckford (archive ref: CAL 1/16). Note mention of small dogs, at the top.

The skeleton in question, known as A8, belonged to a very strong man aged between 25 and 35.  He died sometime around the year 500 AD.  Dr Wells reported that the bones of A8’s feet were badly damaged by infectious disease, with the phalanges and metatarsal heads entirely destroyed.  He concluded that “These feet are absolutely typical of advanced leprosy. Despite their Early Saxon date they could be used to illustrate a modern textbook of pathology.”

A8 was buried in an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery found at Beckford (near Evesham) during gravel-digging work in 1954.  Archaeologists quickly excavated the graves then the process of analysis began.  Dr Wells, as an expert in this subject, was asked to report on the human bones during the late 1950s.

He decided, with permission, to publicise the discovery of this almost certain case of leprosy in advance of publication of the excavation report.  The Calvin Wells Archive includes a letter from Vera Evison, the archaeologist who had dug the cemetery.  She had been “very puzzled at the absence of toes” on A8 so Dr Wells’ diagnosis made sense to her.

CAL 1_16 Letter from Evison 1960 re A8 p1

Detail of letter from Vera Evison who had excavated the graves, in which she explains that the absence of toes on A8 had puzzled her.

The full report was published in 1996 by the Council for British Archaeology.  It unites the story of A8’s leprosy with details of his grave and those of the people he lived with.  As if he did not have enough difficulties, it seems A8 also had spina bifida.

We get the faintest sense of him as a person from his grave-goods.  A8 was buried with various objects including a yew-wood bucket, a bronze ear-scoop and a spearhead.  As he had more goods than anyone else in the cemetery, he may have been an important person in his society.

A woman, A11, who died in her late twenties, was buried next to him.  She also had many goods in her grave (brooches and beads), showed possible signs of  leprosy and had similar back problems to A8: perhaps his sister?  Dr Wells noted that A8’s grave also  contained the bones of two small dogs “one about the size of a terrier, one the size of a whippet”.

A8, A11 and their companions would have led tough lives with little comfort and gritty food.  The report writers concluded that the Beckford community was poor, isolated and inbred.  It is not surprising therefore to find leprosy in such a setting: it is a disease most likely to be experienced by people living in poverty and difficult conditions.


  • The article: Wells, Calvin  “A Possible Case of Leprosy from a Saxon Cemetery at Beckford”.  Medical History, 1962 October; 6(4): 382–386.  Available online via Pub Med Central. (STOP PRESS 4 Oct – this link may not work as Pub Meb is affected by US government shut-down.  Apols if so, I am sure it will be back in due course).
  • The excavation report:  Evison, Vera I. and Hill, Prue.  Two Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries at Beckford, Hereford and Worcester.  Council for British Archaeology, 1996.  CBA Research Report 103.
  • File CAL 1/16 in the Calvin Wells Archive includes notes, typescripts and correspondence concerning the human bones from Beckford burials.
  • You can find out more about the impact of leprosy on bones and see many high-quality 3D images on the websites for University of Bradford projects From Cemetery to Clinic and Digitised Diseases.

Thanks to my colleagues Sarah George and Jo Buckberry for their assistance with this article.

60. Bones, Bodies and Disease: the Rare Medical Books of Dr Calvin Wells

These striking images are from a collection of historic medical books gathered by Dr Calvin Wells.  This unfortunate child has “measels”: he appears in the frontispiece of Domestic Medicine, by William Buchan. New ed. 1782, along with illustrations of smallpox, ring worms, scald head and various intestinal worms.  Buchan’s work was aimed at the general public and proved very popular, running into many editions (this interesting article from Boston Medical Library explains his appeal to British and American readers).

Detail from frontispiece of Buchan's Domestic Medicine, new ed 1782 Calvin/BUCDr Wells (1908-1978) was a fascinating individual, a doctor turned archaeologist.  He began his career in medicine in London, training at University College London and University College Hospital and specialising in obstetrics.  He also became interested in anthropology. Later, when he had moved to Norfolk, Dr Wells began to combine these two strands, using his medical knowledge to interpret archaeological finds and so shed light on the diseases and injuries suffered by ancient people and sometimes also on modern health problems. His best-known work was Bones, Bodies and Disease (1964). His widow, Winifred “Freddie” Wells, donated his books and archive to the University of Bradford in 1984.

Emblems of Immortality, p.170 of Thornton's Philosophy of Medicine vol 2 1799-1800 Calvin/THOThis beautiful engraving shows emblems of immortality (caterpillar to butterfly, acorn to oak tree).  It is from volume 2 of Thornton’s Philosophy of medicine (1799-1800) which is full of intriguing illustrations and interesting anecdotes.  This illustration accompanies an article about the brain in which the author defends ideas of the soul and immortality.

Both Calvin and Winifred Wells collected historic medical books.  Their book collection is particularly rich in 17th and 18th century volumes on gynaecology and obstetrics, by authors such as Thomas Sydenham, Francois Mauriceau and William Smellie.  There are also 20th century works on archaeology and anthropology, practical medical and nursing works, and books on exotic travels, ear, nose and throat medicine, and the archaeology of Norfolk.

More on Dr Wells’ archaeological interests in a later Object!

21. Death and the Woolsorter: Bradford doctors against anthrax

Bradford’s phenomenal growth and prosperity in the 19th century were founded on the wool industry.  But the industry had a dark side.  Alongside bad working conditions and poverty,  a deadly disease awaited some wool workers.

Death in the Woolpack, 1880s cartoon

Death in the Woolpack, 1880s cartoon ANT 1 p.45

In Object 3 we learned about the innovative Bradford products based on new wools from overseas such as alpaca and mohair.  These bales of wool were often contaminated with blood or skin and sometimes contained the anthrax bacillus.  Workers quickly made the link between these wools and  “bronchitis, pneumonia, and so-called blood-poisoning of a peculiar deadly nature”.  Those who sorted the bales were most vulnerable to what became known as “woolsorters’ disease”, or “la maladie de Bradford”, though other cases were known e.g. a woman who washed her husband’s contaminated clothes, or a boy who fell asleep on a bale of wool.  Death could result within a day or so, accompanied by terrible pain.

Two Bradford doctors played key roles in researching and removing the disease: Dr J.H. Bell, who established in 1879 that “woolsorters’ disease” was indeed anthrax, and Dr Fritz Eurich.  In his capacity as bacteriologist to the Bradford Anthrax Investigation Board, the latter spent many years of dangerous work growing  and experimenting on the bacillus.  He found a method of killing it by disinfecting fleeces, removing the danger without spoiling the fleece or harming the workers.

This week’s Object comes from The Anthrax Papers, copies of two scrapbooks of press cuttings about the disease in Bradford between 1878 and 1911.  The Papers have added resonance because the originals were collected by the two doctors and used as evidence in their work.  They were also used by Dr Eurich’s eldest daughter, Margaret Bligh, in writing her biography, Dr Eurich of Bradford (also in Special Collections).