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‘X-rays don't tell lies’: the Medical Research Council and the measurement of respiratory disability, 1936–1945

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 July 2019

Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, Cotham House, Bristol, BS6 6JL, UK. Email:
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During the first half of the twentieth century, the mining industry in Britain was subject to recurrent disputes about the risk to miners’ lungs from coal dust, moderated by governmental, industrial, medical and mining bodies. In this environment, precise measurements offered a way to present uncontested objective knowledge. By accessing primary source material from the National Archives, the South Wales Miners Library and the University of Bristol's Special Collections, I demonstrate the importance that the British Medical Research Council (MRC) attached to standardized instrumental measures as proof of objectivity, and explore the conflict between objective and subjective measures of health. Examination of the MRC's use of spirometry in their investigation of pneumoconiosis (miner's lung) from 1936 to 1945 will shed light on this conflict and illuminate the politics inherent in attempts to quantify disability and categorize standards of health.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2019 

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This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant no 103339) as part of the Life of Breath project. I would like to thank the Life of Breath team for their helpful comments on the presentation of this work. I am further indebted to Havi Carel, Graeme Gooday and Richard Bellis for their vital criticism and editorial remarks on earlier drafts. Special thanks to Lundy Braun for discussing her research on historical spirometry at the University of Bristol in March 2018. I am also grateful to Marie Thebaud-Sorger, Stephen Mawdsley, Sally Horrocks, Charlotte Sleigh and the two anonymous referees for their assistance with this work.


1 Edgar King to Fred Swift, 20 November 1923, Somerset Miners’ Association, Bristol University Library Special Collections (henceforth SMA), DM 443, Box 6.

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53 King to Swift, op. cit. (52).

54 Melling, op. cit. (8).

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63 This expression is attributed to an address on ‘The effects of dust inhalation in mines’ that J.S. Haldane delivered to the South Wales Institute of Engineers in 1923 and is quoted in Cotes, John E., ‘The Medical Research Council Pneumoconiosis Research Unit, 1945–1985: a short history and tribute’, History of Occupational Medicine (2000) 50(6), pp. 440449, 440CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a more thorough discussion of this remark in the context of the 1930 controversy about miners’ silicosis see Meiklejohn, Andrew, ‘History of lung diseases of coal miners in Great Britain: Part 3, 1930–1952’, British Journal of Industrial Medicine (1952) 9, pp. 208220, 211Google Scholar.

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90 D'Arcy Hart, op. cit. (86), p. 462.

91 Preface to MRC, op. cit. (77).

92 See MRC, op. cit. (77), Medical Survey, p. 35, and preface p. vii.

93 The four categories were scaled from ‘no, or only slight, respiratory embarrassment’ to ‘breathless at rest’ and included intermediate points. MRC, op. cit. (77), p. 47.

94 MRC, op. cit. (77), p. 47.

95 It is worth noting that these categories are described as ‘convenient’ and there were some initial restrictions of this compensation. See ‘Summary of Chapter 5’ in MRC, op. cit. (77), introduction, p. v.

96 Braun, op. cit. (19), p. 145.

97 Jones, op. cit. (75), p. 12.

98 Braun, op. cit. (19), p. 145.

99 Bloor, op. cit. (8).

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101 MRC, op. cit. (77), p. 143.

102 MRC, op. cit. (77), Medical Survey (ii), incidence of X-ray changes in different mining occupations, p. 168, original emphasis.

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110 Aslett, D'Arcy Hart and McMichael, op. cit. (33), p. 504.

111 Smith, op. cit. (34), pp. 347–348.

112 Gilson and Hugh-Jones, op. cit. (48), p. 27.

113 Gilson and Hugh-Jones, op. cit. (48), p. 27.

114 Braun, op. cit. (19), p. 160.

115 MRC, op. cit. (77), p. 111.

116 Aslett, D'Arcy Hart and McMichael, op. cit. (33), p. 505.

117 Braun, op. cit. (19), p. 162.

118 Braun, op. cit. (19), pp. 160, 164.

119 Porter, op. cit. (23).

120 Lorraine J. Daston and Peter Gallison, Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007, p. 34.

121 Haslanger, Sally, ‘Epistemic objectification and oppression’, in Kidd, Ian James, Medina, Jose and Pohlhaus, Gaile Jr (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, Oxford: Routledge, 2017, pp. 279290, 284CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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