Conference write up: Oral histories of science, technology and medicine

Posted on 17/07/2015 by


More than 100 delegates attended this year’s conference of the Oral History Society, which focused on the oral histories of science, technology and medicine.

The conference, which took place in the spectacular surroundings of Royal Holloway, University of London on July 10 and 11, opened with a keynote by Professor Kate Fisher, director of the Centre of Medical History at the University of Exeter.Kate Fisher

Fisher (left) began her keynote, titled Old Debates and Ongoing Challenges in Oral History, by talking about why she chose to use oral history to study sexuality and sex – the main focus of her research.

“When I began this work I was attracted to oral history because it seemed to be marginalised and on the fringes of accepted academic practice – so it was cool. It was challenging and radical and attacked notions of what history was,” she said.

Much of her early academic career was spent at Cambridge and Oxford and “for much of that time I felt I had to battle against an entrenched and institutionalised culture against oral history,” she said.

However, as oral history has become a much more accepted academic practice has it lost what made it special, asked Fisher.

“Arguments about sampling and representativeness seem to me to be very uncompelling, unimportant and dangerous for oral historians. I don’t think we’re convincing when we try to play that game,” she said.

“I’m excited by working with gripping stories and powerful narratives but have found myself in the middle of debates about the relative value of quantitative versus qualitative history,” she said.

She added that she was not interested in “how many condoms were used exactly when” but in narratives “which provide access to the meaning of lives, rather than just what happened.”

She then went on to question witness seminars, pioneered by history of medicine, which she said strove to find a consensus and a “shared, accurate version of past events.”

“I know that underneath there’s raw politics that was part of that story and that’s been smoothed over. It means that in these groups there’s the potential for a contested set of narratives – the sort of stuff I would love to get my teeth into,” she said.

Fisher later talked about the research, which culminated in her book Sex before the Sexual Revolution. The interviews she undertook with people who married in the 1930s showed that couples relished their ignorance of sex, enjoying the joint exploration of sexual pleasure. This finding runs contrary to a dominant narrative of a culture of sexual ignorance and repression, which was only overturned during the liberating 1960s.

Reviewers accused Fisher of trying to push some kind of reactionary, Daily Mail-style agenda with the book.

However, Fisher said she that while she benefited from the social changes begun in the 1960s she was attracted to the idea of doing some “1960s bashing”.

“My personal and professional identity is not tied up with the notion that I have broken free of the previous generation. I’m not uncomfortable with the idea of bursting the neat story of liberation,” she said.

Fisher’s themes of uncovering narratives and revealing gripping stories were continued throughout the conference, with papers covering such diverse topics as the mind, technological change in the workplace and ethics committees.

In her paper on changing treatments and attitudes in mental health Judith Garfield, executive director of Eastside Community Heritage in east London, interviewed patients who had undergone electro-convulsive therapy, including one man who had 12 treatments.

Her paper highlighted the strong social movement against this treatment that began in the 1980s, with mental health service users taking more responsibility for their treatment.

Doug Boyd, director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, gave the second keynote speech, whose title was Play, Record, Pause: How Technology is Changing the Practice and Purpose of Oral History. 705063BD-7CA6-4455-A7AB-7A826916DA46D54B2B7A-2364-479C-B83C-6322CE57F865

Boyd (left), who earlier in the conference led a workshop on his oral history metadata synchroniser, began his talk by saying that from the early days of recording on wax cylinders oral history has always been technologically minded.

His talk focused on how despite the great technological changes oral history is currently undergoing it is a practice that is still obsessed with text and transcripts.

“The greatest risk for oral history is obscurity. We have thousands of oral histories in the archive but from the day they are collected they are ignored… We collect, collect and collect. That’s not the end of the process – it’s the beginning,” he said.

He said that his centre aims to have digitised its entire archive within the next two years but acknowledged that putting interviews online gave them a global reach, with both positive and negative consequences.

He told the story of an interview carried out in 1986 with a World War Two veteran, Marshall Webb, who fought in the Battle of Tremensuoli in Italy. An Italian writer, Giovanni Caruso, who was researching a novel about the period contacted the Nunn Center and asked to listen to the interview. When Boyd asked him how he had heard of Marshall Webb the writer said that the young solider had carved his name and home state on a wall in the town. By doing a simple Google search Caruso came across the reference to Webb in the Nunn Center’s archives.

Boyd sent the interview to the writer and then contacted the family of Webb, who died in 2004, to tell them about the writer’s interest in their father and the carving, which they did not know existed. Boyd then met and interviewed Webb’s widow and children who donated Webb’s papers and many unpublished poems about the war to the university’s archives.

One obscure interview has led to a wonderful collection of papers, said Boyd.

“In oral history it’s the moments that matter but we fail miserably to get people to these moments unless we write a book,” he said.

But at the end of his speech he acknowledged that while Webb’s story showed that providing global access to ordinary people’s stories could have unexpectedly rich results there were dangers.

“Does everything need to be online in this deeply personal thing we’re doing? Absolutely not. The next challenge for oral historians is to work out this relationship we have with the interviewer in a humane, ethical and compassionate way.”

Later sessions at the conference focused on policy and government and the gendered body, with papers covering a range of subjects including the introduction of the smoking ban in Scotland, military health and medicine in the Second World War and veterinary oral histories.

Cláudia Castelo from the University of Lisbon gave a paper on oral histories of Portuguese scientists working in the former colonies of Mozambique and Angola. Her photographs of the expeditions highlighted the valuable input of local people, largely ignored in histories of scientific endeavours in Africa.

This theme was later picked up by Ron Doel, who, with OHS chair Graham Smith, ended the conference with a discussion entitled Science Stories.

R-Doel-2Doel (left), associate professor of history at Florida State University, said that photographs of paleontologists at Como Bluff in Wyoming, one of the richest dinosaur fossil sites in the world, showed that around a third or half of the scientists digging for bones were women. This runs contrary to accepted narratives that it was mainly men who were involved in early paleontology, he said.

Doel also picked up on a theme that interviews with scientists tend to focus on elites.

“But the production of scientific knowledge doesn’t involve solely the elite members of the community. There’s a much bigger community of technicians, equipment designers and others out there,” he said.

  • Next year’s conference, which takes place on July 8 and 9 at the University of Roehampton, is called Beyond text in the digital age: Oral history, images and the written word. For more information click here. Proposals should be submitted by 18 December to
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