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Voices of Surgery: Oral History at the Royal College of Surgeons of England

05 Jan 2024

Susan Isaac

Have you ever wondered why someone decides to become a surgeon? Oral history brings the personal perspective and individual experiences of people who have embarked on this path and goes some way to answer that question. People’s memories can express a sense of mood, time and place - helping us to answer the question “What was it like…?”

Mr David Jones FRCS

Mr David Jones, FRCS.

The Royal College of Surgeons of England oral history project, Voices of Surgery, is capturing surgeons’ memories and reflections on the many changes in surgery they’ve experienced during their careers. The project’s first interview was with Professor Harold Ellis, a medical student during World War II who started his career as the NHS came into being, a landmark in healthcare history. In his interview, he talks about his first days at Oxford University and the surprises there were for an East End boy.

Developing an oral history project requires considerable planning, from defining the nature and scope of the project to selecting appropriate recording equipment, identifying interviewers and interviewees, transcribing interviews, and finally, deciding how to publish the recordings and what the end product is going to be. It was a challenge, but one that the Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows Committee felt was worth undertaking.

A working group was formed in 2021 to plan the project, and they invited Sarah Lowry, a freelance oral historian, to join the group as an expert consultant. Sarah co-ordinates the oral history collection at the Royal College of Physicians and also works as an oral history trainer for the National Life Stories Project at the British Library and the Oral History Society. There have been large-scale strides in surgery and changes in society during the 20th and 21st centuries. The Voices of Surgery project will be a valuable historical resource for researchers, academics, family members and the wider public, creating a record of the history of surgery and inspiring the next generation of surgeons.

The interviews are planned and carried out by a small team of volunteers who are all fellows of the College, supported by Sarah. The idea is that having surgeons interview surgeons quickly builds rapport and leads to interesting follow-up questions in clinical areas. The interviews follow participants’ life stories, covering childhood memories, school and university days, clinical training and the stress of taking the exams. When talking about their research and surgical careers, interviewees share their excitement about developments in their specialties and reflect on the social and political changes they have experienced in the NHS.

Miss Ruth Lester FRCS & Mr Navnit Shah FRCS

Miss Ruth Lester, FRCS, and Mr Navnit Shah, FRCS.

A variety of surgeons have given us an insight into their background, life at university and career path. Navnit Shah talks about studying medicine in Bombay and coming to the UK to specialise in otorhinolaryngology and he invented several ENT surgical instruments. Ruth Lester, a plastic surgeon at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, developed a specialist service for children with hand and upper limb abnormalities. Listen to her talk about how she made her young patients feel at ease.

Most interviews last between one to five hours and can take place in one or several sessions. They can be recorded in the person’s home, at the College, online or elsewhere if the interviewee prefers. There are legal considerations as there are two separate copyrights in an oral history interview: the organisation conducting the interview owns the copyright in the recording, while the interviewee owns the copyright in his or her words as they are recorded within the interview. Interviewees are given the opportunity to listen to the recording or read the transcript of the interview so they can decide if there are any sections they would like to close or delete. Once we agree on any requested changes, they are asked to transfer their copyright to RCS England. It is very important that the interviewees are happy with what is agreed upon and made available on the website.

It can take longer than one might expect to complete the whole process, from inviting someone to participate to uploading their interview to the Voices website. It turns out that a retired surgeon can be just as busy as one working in the NHS. Also, there is the paperwork to keep track of, transcriptions to organise, and choosing the short clips from the full interviews to give prospective listeners the choice to dip into or listen to the whole interview.

There are eleven interviews currently available on the Voices website, such as Bozena Laskiewicz, who talks about founding the charity Medical Aid for Poland Fund and delivering supplies for Solidarity in Poland or Bob Marchant, who was chief operating department assistant at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead and is the honorary secretary of the famous Guinea Pig Club. We are in the process of completing a further nine interviews, which will be added as they are finished, so it is worth checking on the website regularly for new additions. Who would you like to hear? We are planning the next round of interviews and will welcome suggestions for potential interviewees.

Interviews available on the website
Professor Harold Ellis
Professor Averil Mansfield
Mr Navnit Shah
Professor Sir Miles Irving
Mr Ian Stephen
Mr Bob Marchant
Sir Terence English
Miss Ruth Lester
Miss Bozena Laskiewicz
Mr Peter Savage
Mr Brian Morgan

Interviews to be uploaded in 2024
Mr David Jones
Colonel Professor Linda Orr
Professor Bill Heald
Mr David Dandy
Mr Tim Milward
Professor Sean Hughes
Miss Anne Moore
Professor Michael Baum
Professor Richard Ramsden

Voices of Surgery homepage

The Voices of Surgery homepage.

You can use the main search box on the Voices homepage to search for an interviewee (click the magnifying glass to search), or you can click on one of the images in the carousel and then the “view record” button. Alternatively, you can search for the interviews in the Heritage Collections catalogue by searching for an individual’s name and using the filter options to focus on the Voices of Surgery collection.

The interviews give a glimpse of the person behind the surgical mask; they are a first-hand account of a surgical career and primary source material for social historians or anyone interested in what a surgeon does. The interviews stand alongside our well-established Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows project, an online collection of over 10,000 obituaries. Together, these two projects form a unique record of the evolution of surgery from the foundation of the fellowship in 1843 to the present day.

So, we invite you to immerse yourself in the rich history of surgery. Listen to captivating interviews with pioneering surgeons who’ve shaped the field, including Professor Averil Mansfield, the UK’s first female professor of surgery and the founding chairwoman of Women in Surgical Training or Sir Terence English, the surgeon who performed the first successful UK heart transplant but originally studied mining engineering. These interviews are a window into surgery’s past, present, and future. Hit play, and let the voices of surgeons inspire you.

Susan Isaac, Customer Service Manager

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