Aline working on the Norman Dott case notes
I originally come from Caen, in Normandy, where testimonies of history are everywhere – from the imposing castle of William the Conqueror to the solemn D-Day beaches. Studying medieval history, I chose to follow my Norman ancestors and to come to Britain for my second year of my master’s degree, which I did at the University of Glasgow with the Erasmus programme. Little did I know I would still be in Scotland four years later. Indeed, after my Erasmus year, I did a master’s degree in Archives and Museum Sciences and I decided to do my work placement at Glasgow University Archive Services. My role there was to create an item-based catalogue of the Blackhouse charters, 500 documents dating from 1246 to 1717 pertaining to the history of the University of Glasgow. This was a fascinating project that enabled me to consider historical documents from another angle – not as a historian, but as an archivist. A few months later, I was hired for a three-month contract at the Royal College of Nursing in Edinburgh as an archive assistant. It was my first contact with contemporary medical archives, which were quite different from what I had worked with before but equally captivating. This led me to apply for the LHSA internship, which I thought was in perfect continuity with my previous experiences since I had already worked with both item-based catalogues and medical archives.
During these first two weeks, working with the Norman Dott collection has been very exciting and enriching. One could think that medical archives can be somewhat “dry” and hard to understand, with its obtuse, very specialised, vocabulary and its technical charts and reports incomprehensible for the layman. However, although they do include very sector specific jargon and were never supposed to be historical documents, Norman Dott’s case notes offer direct contact with the past, and tell life stories, tales of war and examples of medical prowess…especially since the case notes I am cataloguing are from his time in the Brain Injuries Unit in Bangour General Emergency Service Hospital in Broxburn, and date from 1943-1944, in the midst of the Second World War. In this Unit, Norman Dott treated servicemen and servicewomen from all over the world – so far I have come across people from the United Kingdom of course, but also many Polish soldiers (especially Polish pilots), Norwegian officers, North American soldiers, a soldier from the French Antilles and another one from British Honduras, and even an Italian prisoner of war. They could be sailors, pilots, basic soldiers, medics, but also female ATS and WAAF members; and they all had a story to tell.
Postcard of Norman Dott’s neurosurgical ward (Ward 32) in Bangour General Emergency Service Hospital during the Second World War
The case notes, especially the typed case summaries, often give a detailed account of the patients’ lives: their family, their personal history, what brought them to Bangour (accident or illness), their feelings about the treatment they received and about serving in the army. Treating brain injuries meant you had to be attentive to the slightest psychological symptoms such as changes of behaviour, mood swings and general state of mind, in addition to physical symptoms; therefore, the case notes sometimes give a very personal and intimate insight into someone’s life and mind during a very critical time. Norman Dott’s diagnosis was all the more important in that it determined if they could return to fighting for their country or had to be discharged. I find it fascinating to see destinies unfold before my eyes, some of them being very poignant.
The objective of the Norman Dott project is to create an online catalogue that will make the collection visible, accessible and intelligible to researchers, whatever their interest or background, whilst preserving patient confidentiality. It will bring this fascinating collection to life and help it reach its full potential; that’s why I am very honoured and excited to be part of this project.