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Points Interview: Dr Laura Robson-Mainwaring

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today’s post features an interview with Dr Laura Robson-Mainwaring, the Modern Health Records Specialist at The National Archives. She specialises in 20th century health records. Prior to joining the archives Laura undertook a PhD on Branding, Packaging and Trade Marks in the Medical Marketplace c.1870-c.1920 at the University of Leicester, and she holds a MSc in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine from Imperial College London.

Laura recently authored ‘“OWN NAME,” “NO NAME,” AND “THE PLAGUE OF FANCY NAMES”: Trademarks within the British Pharmaceutical Market, c. 1875-1920‘ within the first issue of History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals. Find out more about Laura’s background, article and future research plans in this interview.

  1. Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.

I am the Modern Health Records Specialist at The National Archives, archive of the UK government. I’ve worked there for around 2.5 years after previously undertaking a PhD at the University of Leicester in the Medical Humanities department. My job involves three main strands: research, record enhancement, and public operations. Essentially, I work on cataloguing projects, answer public enquiries about the modern health records collection, carry out research and look at ways to encourage engagement with the twentieth-century health records.

  1. What got you interested in the history of pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals?

My interest in all things history of medicine grew after undertaking a MSc at Imperial College London on the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, where I took part in seminars at the Wellcome Library. When I saw the opportunity to undertake a PhD on the nineteenth-century medical marketplace with the University of Leicester, funded by the AHRC and the Society of Apothecaries, my interest was immediately piqued. It took me a while to work out the focal points of the thesis but the wealth of information contained in the likes of the trade periodical The Chemist and Druggist drew my focus away from the medical profession towards retail pharmacy.

  1. Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

It’s a tale of localism v globalism, which also serves to give more credit to historical actors involved in the sale of branded medicines despite their link to quackery. Branded commercial remedies have tended to be mocked by modern and contemporary commentators for their hyperbolic advertisements and links to quackery. My article shows that branding was redefined in the nineteenth century as a result of trademark legislation, impacting how medicines were marketed to various market participants. Looking at advertisements and commentary in the trade and professional press I explore how trademarks could be used as communicative and regulatory device within the chain of distribution, from manufacturers, to retailers, and then to the end-consumer. The period following the passing of the Trade Marks Registration Act of 1875 saw the increase in the use of fancy names for branding commercial remedies. However, persuading customers to purchase a medicine with an attractive fancy name was not the only marketing strategy. Retailers were an important consideration for how medicines were presented and sold, as many did not want their own “brand” to be usurped by a manufacturer’s name. As a result many medicine manufacturers and wholesalers would offer ranges of “Own Name” preparations to keep their customer base happy. The article reflects on the value of certain brands within the local area, highlighting that the local market retained importance despite a shift in the period towards nationally recognised brands. I found it useful to conceptualise retail chemists as consumers within the chain of distribution. The trade press served as an illuminating source to uncover how medicines were sold and understood at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth.

  1. Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

I am currently working on an article on the relationship between doctors and commercial remedies c.1870-1920, showing that qualified medical practitioners were trademarking remedies despite the myth that the profession would not associate themselves with trade.

My job role allows me to research anything related to the health records in The National Archives’s collection, which has led to down lots of research rabbit holes. My blogs on many aspects of the history of public health policy, health education and nursing can be found here. I have also been working as a co-curator for the exhibition The 1920s: Beyond the Roar, which draws on the diverse collection of records held at the archives to uncover what life was like in the 1920s. My research for the exhibition focused on health in the 1920s, including health education and policy, and emerging ideas around society, morality and public health provision.

I have a research interest in the history of the pharmaceutical industry and its interactions with the state. As a result I have begun scoping records relating to the thalidomide tragedy in the 1960s, finding that many women did not know they had taken the drug, having been prescribed it under one of its many brand names. I have given a number of papers on the topic, focusing on the provision of limbs by the state. I would like to turn this research into a wider, hopefully collaborative, project.

  1. Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

Digitisation. The main source material for my PhD was advertisements found in the trade periodical The Chemist and Druggist, which have almost been digitised in full over on the Wellcome Library’s website. This material was invaluable for my research, especially as during my studentship I was diagnosed with a prolapsed disc and found it difficult to travel into central London to the main medical libraries. Of course, sometimes there can be no substitute for physical versions of material. I came across an unbounded version of the periodical in the Wellcome archives, which included ephemera that I was able to use as part of an argument within my thesis – something which did not feature in the digitised version of the bounded copies.

Since working in an archive I have realised that not everything can be or should be digitised: the physicality of material cannot always be captured by digitisation and with regards to health records there is also the added risk of sharing confidential and personal data. Nonetheless, digitisation of material has so many positives around access, as well as enabling innovative digital humanities approaches.

  1. Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

The late author of History of Pharmacy in Britain, Leslie Matthews. I read a lot of his work when reading around my topic for the thesis’s literature review. However, it wasn’t until I came across the personal oral testimonies of retired pharmaceutical chemists deposited at the British Library that I knew he worked in a pharmacy in the 1920s. The interview (by Stuart Anderson) was carried out whilst Matthews was in his late 90s (he was born in 1897) and it was incredible to listen to his accounts of retail practices 100 years ago. Matthews went onto work at Burroughs Wellcome and later became a history of pharmacy scholar. His insights – both personally and academically – into the history of pharmacy would make for a fascinating dinner!


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