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The past as a work in progress


Originating as a presidential address during the seventieth birthday celebrations of the British Society for the History of Science, this essay reiterates the society's long-standing commitment to academic autonomy and international cooperation. Drawing examples from my own research into female scientists and doctors during the First World War, I explore how narratives written by historians are related to their own lives, both past and present. In particular, I consider the influences on me of my childhood reading, my experiences as a physics graduate who deliberately left the world of science, and my involvement in programmes to improve the position of women in science. In my opinion, being a historian implies being socially engaged: the BSHS and its members have a responsibility towards the future as well as the past.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, 1843

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1 Hartley, L.P., The Go-Between, London: Penguin, 2004, p. 5 .

2 Lowenthal, David, The Past Is a Foreign Country, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 .

3 Hobsbawm, Eric J., Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life, London: Allen Lane, 2002, p. 56 .

4 Morris, William, ‘Introduction’, in Steele, Robert, Medieval Lore, London: E. Stock, 1893, pp. ixxiii, xii. For a succinct summary of Morris's career see Wilmer, Clive, ‘Introduction’, in Morris, William, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, London: Penguin, 2004, pp. ixxxvliii, ix–xiv.

5 There is, of course, a huge literature on this point, most famously (although not necessarily most helpfully), Carr's, E.H. What Is History?, London: Macmillan, 1961 , which was based on his 1961 lectures in Cambridge.

6 Traweek, Sharon, ‘Border crossings: narrative strategies in science studies and among physicists in Tsukuba Science City, Japan’, in Pickering, Andrew (ed.), Science as Practice and Culture, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 429–65.

7 Standard texts include Backscheider, Paula R., Reflections on Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 ; Smith, Bonnie G., The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard Unviersity Press, 1998 ; Wagner-Martin, Linda, Telling Women's Lives: The New Biography, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994 .

9 Singer, Charles, ‘The role of the history of science’, BJHS (1997) 30, pp. 7173 . Cantor, Geoffrey, ‘Charles Singer and the early years of the British Society for the History of Science’, BJHS (1997), 30, pp. 523 . I am extremely grateful to Greg Radick for recommending these two articles.

10 Singer, op. cit. (9), p. 73.

11 Cantor, op. cit. (9), p. 23.

12 Blyton, Enid, The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island, London: Hodder Children's Books, 1942, p. 95 .

13 Blyton, op. cit. (12), p. 12.

14 Stoney, Barbara, Enid Blyton: The Biography, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992, pp. 3233 .

15 Blyton, Enid, The Famous Five: Five on Kirrin Island Again, London: Hodder Children's Books, 1947, Chapter 2, Kindle loc. 137.

16 See, accessed 3 October 2017.

17 Blyton, op. cit. (15), Chapter 16, Kindle loc. 1450, original emphasis.

18 Rudd, David, Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children's Literature, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 2000, pp. 88131 .

19 Singer, op. cit. (9), p. 19.

20 Browne, Janet, ‘Officers and council members of the British Society for the History of Science, 1947–97’, BJHS (1997) 30, pp. 7789, 78.

21 For an impassioned discussion of this point with respect to ethnic prejudices in the UK see Eddo-Lodge, Reni, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People about Race, London: Bloomsbury, 2017 .

22 Westfall, Richard S., ‘Newton and his biographer’, in Baron, Samuel H. and Pletsch, Carl (eds.), Introspection in Biography: The Biographer's Quest for Self-Awareness, Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1985, pp. 175189 .

23 Westfall, op. cit. (22), pp. 188, 187.

24 Braybon, Gail, ‘Winners or losers: women's symbolic role in the war story’, in Braybon (ed.), Evidence, History and the Great War: Historians and the Impact of 1914–18, New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003, pp. 86112 ; and Deborah Thom, ‘Making spectaculars: museums and how we remember gender in wartime’, in ibid., pp. 48–66.

25 Quoted in Leneman, Leah, In the Service of Life: The Story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women's Hospitals, Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1994, p. xi .

26 West, G.M., quoted in Woollacott, Angela, On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1994, p. 35 .

27 G.M. West, quoted in Woollacott, op. cit. (26), p. 35.

28 Caroline Playne quoted in Kent, Susan Kingsley, Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Interwar Britain, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 37 .

29 My major biographical sources were Harrison, Brian, Prudent Revolutionaries: Portraits of British Feminists between the Wars, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987 ; Strachey, Barbara, Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Family, London: Gollancz, 1980 ; and Strachey, Ray, A Quaker Grandmother, Hannah Whitall Smith, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1914 . I am also grateful for discussions with Jennifer Holmes, who in 2016 completed a PhD on Strachey.

30 LSE: 7/BSH/2/2/1, letter to her mother, Mary Costelloe, of 14 November 1909.

31 LSE: 7/BSH/2/2/2, letter to her mother of 21 December 1910.

32 LSE: 7/BSH/2/2/3, letter of 24 March 1908.

33 Quoted in Harrison, op. cit. (29), p. 164, original emphasis; and Barbara Strachey, op. cit. (29), p. 273 (Ray Strachey, letter to Mary Costelloe of 4 February 1917).

34 LSE: 7/BSH/2/2/5, letter of 26 March 1917. Hutton, Isabel Emslie, With a Woman's Unit in Serbia, Salonika and Sebastopol, London: Williams, 1928 .

35 Hutton, Isabel Emslie, Memories of a Doctor in War and Peace, London: Heinemann, 1960, p. 166 .

36 Rose West quoted in Leneman, op. cit. (25), p. 175.

37 Dr Ruth Conway quoted in Leneman, op. cit. (25), pp. 197–198.

38 Cadogan, Mary and Craig, Patricia, You're a Brick, Angela: A New Look at Girls’ Fiction from 1839 to 1975, London: Victor Gollancz, 1976, pp. 11262 .

39 My main biographical sources are Gwynne-Vaughan, Helen, Service with the Army, London: Hutchinson, 1942 ; and Izzard, Molly, A Heroine in Her Time: A Life of Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, 1879–1967, London: Macmillan, 1969 .

40 Noakes, Lucy, Women in the British Army: War and the Gentle Sex, 1907–1948, London: Routledge, 2006, pp. 181 ; Terry, Roy, Women in Khaki: The Story of the British Woman Soldier, London: Columbus, 1988, pp. 3272 ; Noakes, Lucy, ‘“Playing at being soldiers”? British women and military uniform in the First World War’, in Meyer, Jessica (ed.), British Popular Culture and the First World War, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008, pp. 123145 (Saturday Review of 11 January 1919 quoted at p. 143).

41 Jordanova, Ludmilla, Defining Features: Scientific and Medical Portraits 1660–2000, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2000, pp. 130134 , Yellowlees quoted at 133.

42 Strachey, Ray, Women's Suffrage and Women's Service: The History of the London and National Society for Women's Service, London: London and National Society for Women's Service, 1927, p. 36 .

43 Hobsbawm, op. cit. (3), p. 418.

This essay is closely based on my BSHS Presidential Address at the July 2017 conference in York. I would like to thank Charlotte Sleigh and Clive Wilmer for their very helpful suggestions.

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