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Interview with Catherine Corbishley-Michel

Catherine Corbishley-Michel was a pathologist at St George’s Hospital from 1983 to 2014. Cathy continues to conduct research projects into penal and prostate cancer while volunteering in the Medical School Archives at St George’s.

Catherine discusses the importance of medical archives

I create printed textiles which is how I started working in the archives. I produced a number of quilts based on the exploration of the Antarctic by St George’s alumni Dr Edward Wilson who died along with Captain Scott on their return from the Pole in 1912. Wilson was a great artist and I knew there were copies of his drawings in the archives.

Dr Wilson, who undertook his clinical training at St George’s was the Assistant Surgeon and Zoologist on the Discovery Expedition (1901–04) – a large scale British exploration of the Antarctic regions. He was also Chief Scientist on the Terra Nova Expedition (1910-12), where he died alongside Captain Scott on the return journey from the South Pole.

I somewhat selfishly joined the archive committee and was able to access these great pieces of work. Last year I persuaded them to hold an exhibition of the work as well as various study days which included a lecturer who was related to Wilson. After that, I was then asked to help in the archives.

It is not a big collection as there has only been an archivist for three years but there are some unique historical artefacts. There are post-mortem records from the 1830s and we have just received a grant from the Wellcome Trust to have the records digitalised up until 1980.

These records give an incredible insight into standards of living. St George’s was primarily a hospital for the poor so the cases detailed in the records showcase the lifestyle of central London at the time. However, because of St George’s proximity to Buckingham Palace, physicians who treated the King also worked there. For this reason, we have a burial shroud which belonged to King George II.

Gray’s Anatomy was written at St George’s and we have an early photo of Henry Gray. Gray never paid his illustrator Henry Carter but Carter went on to have a better life – Gray died of typhoid two years after the book was written.

There are books by and photographs of renowned surgeon John Hunter who died of a heart attack after a particularly difficult board meeting at the hospital – nothing changes! He was not regarded as a nice man and both he and his brother William are believed to have had bodies delivered to the back door of the hospital.

We can also glimpse the evolution of women in medicine from the archives. The Hospital Gazette states some female medical students were allowed to use the medical school for exams in 1890 but women were not allowed to attend St George’s itself until the 1920s. It was very much an old boys’ club with sons automatically following their fathers into the school with little regard of their academic prowess.

I have proved useful to the team here because of my medical background. I am able to help with tricky medical terminology and pathologists tend to know more medical terms than any other specialty. I have also worked at St George’s for so long that I can identify unknown people in photographs!

I have been using museums for some time for my artwork so I knew the conventions of handling and when to wear and not wear gloves but have now attended a few conservation courses.

These artefacts have not been hidden, we knew they were there, but our aim now is to make them accessible and to provide a first-rate research facility going forward.

Students will look for specific items for example, if researching TB they might look at previous treatments. The past can help influence the future but we have to look at the historic fact in context. The diseases might have been the same but the environment has changed drastically. People did not have cancer in the past because they did not live long enough to get it.

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