A historical postmortem

May 11, 2001

The Wellcome Trust has been rounding up witnesses to record medicine's key events. Geoff Watts reports.

The principle is simple. Choose a key medical event and invite the principal dramatis personae to a meeting at which they can recount the part they played to a knowledgeable and participating audience in the presence of an informed but disinterested chairman. Tape the discussion, then publish the transcript.

The witness seminar, as used by the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine for the past eight years, attempts to bridge the gap between journalism and traditional historical accounts, where forthright observations often fall prey to self-censorship. The seminars are definitely a warts-and-all exercise.

"It is the ordinary everyday things that are often missing in history," Wellcome's Tilli Tansey says. "The big things are often familiar." A good seminar, she adds, is one in which people interact and come up with a new slant on the topic.

Tansey, convenor of Wellcome's History of the 20th Century Medicine Group, has been responsible for the seminars since they began in 1993 after she borrowed the idea from the Institute of Contemporary British History, which ran witness seminars on political, diplomatic and economic events.

Her first seminar was on monoclonal antibodies. Subsequent topics have included smoking and health and the common-cold research unit. She has overseen 25 seminars and at least three countries are considering replicating this approach to archiving contemporary medicine.

Its particular strength is that it jogs - or even questions - the memories of people involved in events. "It can take a lot of nerve to challenge a Nobel laureate telling a well-rehearsed story," she says. "But the lab technician or the chaps working in the laboratory next door can say, 'Come on, it was not like that.'" This does not mean that witness seminars are any more likely to reach consensus than other approaches to history. One seminar on the Committee on Safety of Drugs produced four versions of why yellow cards (which record adverse reactions to drugs) are yellow. "That's history," Tansey says. "That is the nature of memory."

There are other practical problems. Key witnesses may no longer be in the first flush of youth. Others, once they have the microphone, try to download everything they know. Some people decline the invitation because they do not see the point.

Another problem is clashing egos. The heart transplant meeting was an extreme case. Tansey recalls. "The day before the meeting Mr A phoned me and said, 'I see Sir B is coming. I haven't spoken to him for 20 years. I don't want to meet him. I'm going to phone up Dr C. I'll meet Dr C. outside, and we'll arrive together.' Then Sir B phones and says, 'I see D's coming. I'm not too happy about D. I'm going to meet E at my club and we'll go along at the same time.' It was like dealing with five year olds."

Donald Longmore, who took part in the heart transplant meeting, believes that they are "genuine attempts to get at the facts", but adds: "If senior people in the establishment are there, individuals who can score brownie points by creeping to them, perhaps do."

The next witness seminar, on leukemia, takes place on May 15. For details of this, and of published reports from the History of the 20th Century Group, call 020 7611 8616.

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