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Horrors of the Past Revealed by Archives

Tuesday, 21 July, 2015
Horrors of the Past Revealed by Archives

For the past two years a team at Northumberland Archives has been investigating a fascinating collection of records from the country’s very first children’s sanatorium set up to deal with tuberculosis. Thanks to the support of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the Wellcome Trust, there is now a unique collection of oral history recordings, photographs, x-rays and records exposing the horrors of dealing with, and being subject to this destructive disease in the first half of the twentieth century.  

Stannington Sanatorium opened in 1907. Through its advanced equipment and use of the latest techniques, it achieved a very high success rate in prevention and cure of the disease. For the young patients, however, this meant months, even years, away from their families as they fought the various strains of TB. Removed from the impoverished home environment, good food, access to fresh air and sunshine were key to tackling the problem alongside a range of other treatments including surgery, bone and skin grafts, and immobilisation, depending on the strain of TB.

The Sanatorium continued to treat tuberculous patients as part of the new National Health Service until the mass availability of effective antibiotic therapies, at which point it began to be used as a general children’s hospital, closing in 1984.

Initial work by archivists supported by Northumbria Healthcare’s Bright Chrity about Stannington began with the collection of oral history recordings from individuals who had experience of the pre-antibiotic era of tuberculosis treatment at Stannington. Former patients and staff came forward to share their memories and photographs with researchers, and in the process began to shed light on what the routine was like, how the treatment affected them, and what they felt being removed from their families, homes and communities for months on end.

Following on from this, a grant of £77k from the Wellcome Trust enabled the Archives’ team to catalogue a significant collection of case papers and radiographs of patients treated for TB in the period before the introduction of the use of antibiotics at Stannington Sanatorium. This work has permitted detailed indexing and cross-referencing of the case papers and radiographs, providing a detailed web-based catalogue for the collection and conservation work.  

Explaining about the records, Archivist Karen Rushton said, “We’re now in a position where we can easily identify the records of former patients so that they can reconnect with their past, and by pulling the collection together and digitising all the radiographs, we now have a unique, highly accessible resource for academic research. We’ve already had interest from individuals from the fields of archaeology and medical humanities.”

As the whole project draws to a close, one final event at Woodhorn will bring together some of the original staff and patients from the hospital as well as people who have recently enquired about their own or family members’ medical records from Stannington Sanatorium. Together they will hear from archivists about the work that has been undertaken, find out about the interesting things that have been uncovered and learn how their stories will help others.

“Before starting work on the project I knew very little about TB,” said Karen. “Having become so involved with the records, it was quite surprising to see how common and potentially life-changing a problem it was only a generation or two ago. This stands in stark contrast to the experience of most children growing up in the UK today, and what was once a very high-profile and feared disease is now virtually unknown to younger generations.

“Reading the sanatorium’s old medical records from the 1930s and 1940s, from a time when healthcare was completely different to what we know today, it can be shocking to hear of some of the drastic medical procedures used and the seemingly dire outlook of many of the children. But then following up with later reports and modern day oral history recordings, it is heartening to hear how many children Stannington was able to successfully treat and the stoical attitudes many of the children had to long-term hospitalisation.”

Northumbria Healthcare’s Bright Charity undertakes community educational projects as part of its healing arts programme. The historical element of the project held particular interest, and it was an opportunity to look back through the years to gain a better understanding of how health was delivered in days gone by.  

Dr Gbenga Afolabi, a respiratory consultant, who has an interest in the treatment of TB and in global health, has led the project at the trust.

He said: “As a leading NHS trust we think it’s important to work with partners to share important stories with the public. It has been brilliant to be involved in this project which has unearthed so many secrets about a part of Northumberland’s history which has largely been hidden.

“We would like to thank everyone for coming forward and sharing their experiences and making this such an interesting project.

“To hear their stories of how healthcare has changed so much over the years has been fascinating and we have been touched by their personal stories.

“As a consultant who has been treating respiratory patients for around 20 years, it has been most enlightening to hear these accounts and contrast them to how we treat our patients today.”

“The project not only acts as a lasting legacy of the sanatorium but also contributes to discussions around the world about the global treatment of TB.”

Anyone interested in learning more about tuberculosis, the history of the hospital and the experiences of those involved can find out more online though the website or in person by visiting the Archives at Woodhorn