THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Science blog

Discover Science at the British Library

Introduction

We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

12 August 2016

“Like light shining in a dark place”: Florence Nightingale and William Farr

On the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s death, Katie Howe explores her scientific legacy.

Perhaps best known as ‘the lady with the lamp’ Florence Nightingale was also an accomplished scientist and social reformer.

In 1854, with Britain in the midst of the Crimean conflict, Nightingale was appointed to lead a party of nurses to a military hospital in Scutari (in modern day Istanbul). When she arrived she discovered a lack of coordination between hospitals and no standardised or consistent reporting of mortality rates and causes of death. Nightingale set to work gathering extensive information on all aspects of hospital care.

After returning from the Crimea, Nightingale used her new found celebrity status and personal connections to enlist the help of the eminent Victorian epidemiologist and statistician William Farr in analysing the vast quantities of data she had collected.

Their correspondence, which is held at the British Library, reveals a respectful professional relationship, with Farr often signing off,

“I have the honour to be your very faithful servant.”

In May 1857, when Nightingale sent Farr the death rates calculated from her Crimean war data, he replied,

“Dear Miss Nightingale. I have read with much profit your admirable observations. It is like light shining in a dark place. You must when you have completed your task - give some preliminary explanation - for the sake of the ignorant reader.” (Add MS 43398 f.10)

Add MS 43398 f.10
Add MS 43398 f.10


So Florence Nightingale was not only the literal ‘lady with the lamp’, but her statistical work also illuminated worrying trends in army mortality rates.

After receiving further data from Nightingale in November the same year, Farr wrote:

“This speech is the best that was ever written on diagrams or on the Army.”  (Add MS 43398 f.37)

 

Add MS 43398 f.37
Add MS 43398 f.37


As a result of this productive collaboration with Farr, Nightingale learned that the majority of deaths in the Crimean War were not due to battle wounds but to preventable diseases like typhus and cholera.

To get this important message across to high-ranking government officials who had no statistical training, Nightingale knew she needed a powerful visual message. She represented the cause of death in a revolutionary new way. Rather than using a table or list as was common at the time she created this striking rose diagram. 

Each of the 12 wedges represents a month of the year and changes in the wedges’ colour reveal changes over time. At a glance it was easy to see the deaths from epidemic diseases (blue) far outweighed deaths from battlefield wounds (red) and deaths from other causes such as accidents or frostbite (black).  After sanitary reforms such as the introduction of basic sanitation, hand washing and ventilation, deaths dropped dramatically. Compare the right rose (April 1854-March 1855) with left rose (April 1855-March 1856).

Rose diagram
Florence Nightingale’s Rose diagram “Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858”. C.194.b.297

 

Her rose diagram was so easy to understand it was widely republished. Ultimately this striking visualisation and the accompanying report convinced the government that deaths were preventable if sanitation reforms were implemented in military hospitals. Nightingale’s work provided a catalyst for change, driving better and cleaner hospitals and the establishment of a new army statistics department to improve healthcare.

08 August 2016

Local heroes: “Without the least sense of pain or the movement of a muscle”

As part of a new series exploring local heroes in the Knowledge Quarter area, Philip Eagle reveals the curious history of anesthesia. 

Francis_Boott
Francis Boott. Image: Public domain

A short bus ride away from the British Library, at 52 Gower Street, a blue plaque records the site of the first operation under general anaesthesia in the UK. On 19th December 1846, the dentist James Robinson performed a tooth extraction on a Miss Lonsdale. At the time, 52 Gower Street was the home of Dr. Francis Boott, an American expatriate physician who had heard from friends of the development of diethyl ether as an anaesthetic by William Morton in Boston.

Robinson lived further down the street towards the West End, at 14 Gower Street, where he has his own blue plaque. As well as his work on anaesthetics, he was the author of The Surgical and Mechanical Treatment of the Teeth, claimed to be the first British dental textbook of real scientific quality. He would later become dentist to Prince Albert, and be significantly involved in the creation of the College of Dentistry and the National Dental Hospital.

In a letter to the Lancet, Boott described the operation with the following words:

“I beg to add, that on Saturday, the 19th, a firmly fixed molar tooth was extracted in my study from Miss Lonsdale, by Mr. Robinson, in the presence of my wife, two of my daughters, and myself, without the least sense of pain, or the movement of a muscle”

In a book published later in the year, Robinson himself stated that the patient was only thirteen years old, and reported that:

“She had not felt the slightest pain, but had been dreaming of the country”.

Anaesthesia blue plaques
Blue plaque images by Spudgun67 CC BY-SA 4.0

Subsequently in the nineteenth century, diethyl ether was largely replaced as a general anaesthetic in the UK by chloroform, which was less irritating to the throat and lungs and less likely to have the initially stimulant effect that ether had on some patients. Since the mid twentieth century, the most important inhaled anaesthetics have been the fluorinated alkane halothane and fluorinated ethers such as sevoflurane and desflurance, which are pharmacologically safer and more effective, and also physically safer due to their lower flammability.

Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:

  • Anesthesiology, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(4), since 2012 available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Boott, F. Surgical operations performed during insensibility produced by the inhalation of sulphuric ether*, Lancet, 1847, 49 (1218): 5-8. General Reference Collection P.P.2787. Also available electronically through Science Direct in the Reading Rooms. * Note for chemists: “sulphuric ether” was a common name at the time for diethyl ether, due to its preparation by reacting ethanol with sulphuric acid. The chemical itself did not contain any sulphur.
  • British Journal of Anaesthesia, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(2), since 2014 available electronically through OUP in the Reading Rooms
  • Ellis, R H. James Robinson: England’s true pioneer of anaesthesia. In The History of Anesthesia, Third International Symposium, Proceedings, 1992: 153-164. Document Supply 4317.854000. Available online.
  • Johnson, K B. Clinical pharmacology for anesthesiology. London: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781
  • Pain, Document Supply 6333.795000, also available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Robinson, J. Treatise on the inhalation of the vapour of ether for the prevention of pain in surgical operations, etc. London: Webster & Co. 1847. General Reference Collection 7481.cc.6
  • Robinson, J. The surgical and mechanical treatment of the teeth: including dental mechanics. London, 1846. General Reference Collection 1186.c.46 and RB.23.a.27503.
  • Shafer, S L and others. Stoelting’s pharmacology and physiology in anesthetic practice. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781.
  • Snow, S J. Blessed days of anaesthesia. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. General Reference Collection YC.2009.a.15022

11 July 2016

Food for Thought: Food Technology resources at the British Library

Do you need to explore molecular gastronomy or research the food industry or trends in the beverage business? Are you concerned with global food security, safety  and supply? Are genetically modified foods a threat to our health and ecosystems or a benefit of biological research? What are the markets for different types of food and what is the impact of European regulation on these markets? These questions and many more can be explored by undertaking research at the British Library.

20365094639_f63c42c79f_z
Image from Flickr

Our science reading rooms contain a strong food technology collection including books, journals, both print and electronic  plus discovery tools such as the Food Science and Technology Abstracts (FSTA) database.

Electronic resources for research: our full set of databases are listed here and are accessible to registered readers on-site.

Accessing a world of knowledge: reader registration and pre-registration is quick and easy as outlined on our web site.

Explore the scope and depth of the British Library collections: digital books include topics such as “Developing food products for consumers with specific dietary needs" edited by Steve Osborn, Wayne Morley, Oxford, Woodhead Publishing, 2016, touching on the health aspects and books on wider cultural issues include examples such as “On the Town in New York : The Landmark History of Eating, Drinking, and Entertainments from the American Revolution to the Food Revolution" by Michael Batterberry and  Ariane Batterberry, 2016.

14781536172_c0691d8d7e_z
Image from Flickr

Inter-disciplinary and multi-format collections: apart from the multidisciplinary links to the business, humanities and cultural aspects of food, the science collections cover packaging, preservation, agricultural production, food processing, microbiology, engineering and nutrition.

We hold the publications of the major food sector organisation such as the Institute of Food Science and Technology’s  (IFST)  “International Journal of Food Science and Technology" and the European Federation of Food Science and Technology’s (EFFST) journal entitled “Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies”.

The British Library  offers a wide variety of formats and resources including the oral history food collections which have recently been made available online. These cover the history of food production from the start of the 20th Century and are a fantastic resource for food researchers and historians.

448px-PreservedFood1
Image from Wikimedia

Our collection of historical patents are also a rich resource for understanding food technology and innovation. We offer amongst many other patent databases, the British granted patent specifications database, a  document store that contains pdf copies of British patents from 1617-1899, and PDF copies of granted British patents from 1st January 2007. Although this database is searchable only by patent number, the reference staff can help with subject access using print patent indexes and up to five specifications per week can be downloaded for personal research. See the Business and IP Centre website for more information.

17802853093_fb93d89e0f_m
Image from Flickr

Sources of research in food standards and regulations can be found at the British Library where we collect these UK national publications, e.g. UK Food Standards Agency  and international publications of key organisations such as the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations in our social science reading rooms.

Whet your appetite by visiting the British Library’s collections of food related resources, including recipes, it’s history, science and nutritional benefits.   

Paul Allchin

Science Content Specialist