The Lister Journal – Politics, equality and medical students

Written by on February 27, 2024

We’ve been delighted to once again host students from the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Literature department. The students were completing a placements as part of the course ‘Memorialising Scottish Literature and Culture’. The course encourages students to interpret a range of cultural materials and media in order to understand the construction of Scottish cultural memory.

This year we selected The Lister Journal (ref 119/2/1-9), a journal written and published by medical students in Glasgow during the 1930s and 40s. The journals belonged to John Syson Brackenridge, a dental surgeon who gained his License in Dental Surgery from our College in 1942. During his time as a student in Glasgow he was appointed Art Editor of the Lister Journal and he later published cartoons in national newspapers and drew caricatures of his RAF and golfing friends and colleagues.

We chose the journal as we knew very little about its origins or content and were keen to learn more about it. We’re really grateful to the three students who took up the challenge – their hard work has really brought the journal to life for us!

Introduction by Jennifer Hendry

The Lister Journal, aptly named after Joseph Lister the revolutionary pioneer of antiseptic surgery, offers insight into the radical voices of students and staff at Anderson College and St Mungo’s Medical College throughout the Second World War spanning 1939-1943. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons Glasgow holds nine of these journals which contain progressive student commentaries, reflections on advancing medical science, personal anecdotes, and even creative writing. Despite being written last century, these journals memorialise the wartime perspectives on issues such as campaigning for equal rights for women in medicine, the criticism of the medical education curriculum, and the critique of governmental decisions and societal outlooks from a medical perspective. Therefore, like Joseph Lister intending to transform medicine, these voices intended to transform the medical community and society.

Campaigning for Equality – Dr Doris Eliza Nisbet Bleasby by Jennifer Hendry

A significant voice regarding women in medicine is student Doris Eliza Nisbet Bleasby who was born 17 June 1919, and primarily studied at St Mungo’s College, Glasgow.

Image: March 1941, Vol III. No. II RCPSG 119/2/5 p.60

Bleasby frequently contributed to the journal, and became the Feature Editor in December 1942. One of her most striking possible contributions is within a ‘Roving Reporter’ segment where she reflects on her experience with male counterparts in the college. The editor abbreviated the author’s names, however the confidence in the voice suggests it was Bleasby’s. The comment not only reflects the defiance of her voice in speaking her mind, it also evokes the struggles of being a woman in a male dominated field.

Image: June 1940 Vol II No.2 RCPSG 119/2/4 p.52

Her most significant contribution was in her student commentary written during her second year in 1940. The article questions the supposed logic that society, and her male counterparts utilise in arguing that female medical students are inferior. She is not intimidated by the fact that her opinion at the time of writing was unfortunately in the minority writing ‘nothing new which is really important has been approved without a struggle’. Her confidence in her, for the time period, radical beliefs of equality is exemplified in using her full name for the article, whilst many others in the journal use pseudonyms. Here we get a sense of her spirit, and determination to campaign for the equal treatment of women within the profession. Significantly, Bleasby indicates that the main barrier is her fellow students, staff and future employers who actively ignore women’s capabilities in trying to justify inequality.

Image: June 1940 Vol II No.2 RCPSG 119/2/4 p.53

She is persuasive in her alliterative assertation that ‘bigotry blinded the eyes’ portraying that unjustifiable hatred colours the reality of women’s equal, if not often through necessity superior, work ethic and ability. She emphasises that despite what men might argue women go through the exact same rigorous testing proving that their views are based off of ridiculous misogyny rather than fact. Despite the evident misogyny in education, Bleasby emphasises the struggles continue after graduation with positions stating women ‘need not apply’. Bleasby’s defiant expose suggests the war has required society to begin to acknowledge what the medical community chose to ignore for so long – that women are just as capable as men.

Dr Bleasby went on to have a successful career as an anaesthetist which was tragically cut short when she suddenly passed away aged only 29. She was Licentiate of Royal college of Physicians Edinburgh, Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh and Royal College of Surgeons Glasgow and she worked as Resident Medical Officer at Robroyston Hospital, and Resident House Surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow. Her contribution in The Lister Journal memorializes her as a confident, and assertive woman who refused to accept, and be limited by, inequality.

Write As You Please – Bold and Anonymous Student Commentary by Aaron Baird

Image: March 1940 Volume II, No.1 RLPSG 119/2/3 Pp.14-15

In the Journal of March 1940 V.2 N.1, the recent outbreak of war is seen as raising alarm bells within the medical community with “Jaybee” (the alias of a frequent contributor) commenting on the threat that rationing will have on an already malnourished Britain. We learn that in the final year of The Great War, 41% of men drafted in its concluding year “were in C3 condition, although in the prime of their life” and that such a “disastrous state of affairs” caused by malnutrition should be prevented. This same segment is concluded with criticisms of the conservative government’s lack of concern towards the cost-of-living crisis as a major factor in increasingly high rates of malnourishment. “Jaybee” argues that the unconcerned mindset of the then M.P for Cambridge does a disservice to the war effort, stating that “no attitude, if it is to be constructive, can afford to be like that”. It is apparent as to the way in which The Lister Journal is affording students with the ability to apply their medical expertise to the political world and articulate warning and grievance about / to the government.

In this same segment subtitled as “Realism In War Time”, a contributor only known as “Realist” provides quite a powerful social commentary on the mindsets of men who are yet to be drafted and “regard the present war in a detached fashion”. This “Realist” goes on to state that those focusing their efforts on preparations for post-war ideology or standing against the war entirely are “escapologists” and “Peter Pans”. Such forward comments may have damaged the reputation of this contributor socially, providing a sympathetic understanding to their wish for anonymity. Rather contrary to the comments of “Jaybee”, “Realist” seems rather opposed to any criticism of the government during war, arguing that grievances must be put aside and that the “only possible policy is support”. This demonstrates the existence of a diverse student voice within The Journal, capable of diving into politics and providing those of us in the present with insight as to what sort of debates were ongoing within the wartime medical student body.

Student Attitudes – Educational Development during the War by Toni Black

When discussing any sort of radical change, it is always important to hear the voices of young people as representatives of the future. Students at the three colleges documented in this journal were provided with the opportunity to anonymously voice any opinions and/or concerns through the ‘Write as you Please’ and ‘Student Commentary’ columns. Upon examination of these columns, an interesting case is uncovered between two of the 1941 journals. During the time between March 1941 and June 1941, a group of students united to bring forth an issue to the university that they felt passionately about.

Image: March 1941, Vol III. No. 2 RCPSG 119/2/5, pp. 46-47

The story begins with a section titled ‘Summer Classes’ found in the March ‘Write as you Please’ column. Here, the students have formulated a formal and professional argument concerning their outrage at the cancellation of Glasgow’s only summer clinic. Their concerns include the feeling that they should qualify as efficiently as possible, they are exempt from serving in the War so why should they not become Doctors swiftly and provide help where their talents lie? More importantly, why are the Universities inhibiting this chance? They also argue that the reasoning behind the discontinuation of this course is not sufficient, and does not make sense, as the course has proceeded in the past under the same conditions. The questioning tone littered throughout the section is intended to provoke some discomfort for the board without causing direct offense.

Image: June 1941, Vol III. No. 3 RCPSG 119/2/6, p. 86

Fast forward to June, and the students’ voices have become less patient. A sarcastic tone is adopted towards the issues in the ‘Let’s Go To It’ section under ‘Student Commentary’, in doing so they seem to be resorting to making a mockery of the board to get their attention. This controversial tactic can be effective as institutions are more likely to act when their reputations are threatened. Action has been taken since the last journal in the form of an S.R.C. meeting, and disappointment is in the air. Students are left downhearted as a result of this, providing a motive for the sudden distain. They conclude their update with a dig at the British government’s role in this setback, by insinuating America may do it better.

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The College’s heritage collections – including thousands of medical and surgical instruments, rare books, archives, and pictures – span over 6 centuries and are an excellent resource for exploring the history of medicine and the history of the city of Glasgow. Many items from the collections have been digitised and are available to view here. Our digitisation work is ongoing, and we add new items to the site regularly, so keep checking back to discover more.

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