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  • Hannah Francis, Isra Hussein, Alex Douglas–Bailey, Tionne Parris

YHP in Amsterdam

This May, members of the Young Historians Project travelled to the University of Amsterdam to present our work at a symposium organised by the PULSE Network. The two–day symposium, titled ‘Creating Care: Nursing and the Health Humanities’, was centred around generating academic discussion on how history, philosophy, heritage, and the arts can contribute to nursing and healthcare practices. YHP was scheduled to speak on the first day of the symposium, alongside other academics whose work related to the theme of integrating history, philosophy and nursing.


Members of YHP giving presentation


YHP, represented by Alex, Hannah, Isra, and Tionne, spotlighted our project titled ‘A Hidden History: African Women in the British health service from 1930 to 2000’ through a group presentation. Our presentation began with a short biography of YHP – sharing our aims, a timeline of our main achievements, and the impact we have made on public history through our digital resources, exhibitions, documentary screenings, and other project outputs. Our talk then moved on to focus on our healthcare history project. We shared what YHP was able to uncover about the lives, careers, and experiences of African women working in British healthcare – both as nurses and in other roles – before and after the formation of the National Health Service in 1948.

Photograph of Lulu Coote, signed 'With love, from Lu'

Coincidentally, the earliest recorded African woman to work in the health service in Britain was also of Dutch heritage. Lulu Coote (1890–1964), the daughter of a Congolese woman and a Dutch sailor, registered as a nurse in November 1914 after training in Ashton-under-Lyne from 1911 to 1913. Her surname is typically spelled Koote in Dutch.¹ We then discussed the reasons YHP chose to undertake this research, the project’s methodology, the strengths and challenges faced by our team, our project outputs, and the process of unveiling the project.


After our presentation, we participated in a panel discussion alongside Mia Vrijens and Hugo Schalkwijk of the Florence Nightingale Institute and Andries Hiskes of The Hague University of Applied Sciences to discuss ways of engaging with diverse audiences using arts, culture, history, and heritage. We talked about the importance of presenting our histories to promote social inclusion and to challenge which histories are seen as valuable towards building national identities. It was important to share our perspective as a grassroots organisation utilising oral history to document stories that have long gone unheard. The conversation amongst the panelists also considered how figures in the history of medicine and healthcare like Florence Nightingale are mythologised without an interrogation of their roles in upholding the racist ideas and tropes still present in healthcare institutions today. 


The keynote speakers, Dr. Geertje Boschma of the University of British Columbia and Dr Dominique Tobbell of the University of Virginia, both delivered fantastic talks. Geertje’s lecture explored why the history of nursing and healthcare matters; focusing on the rise of alternative  community mental health support systems in the late 20th century. We learnt of unique grassroots organisations like the Mental Patient's Association (MPA) that challenged the stigma around mental health conditions and sought to empower patients. Dominique’s lecture focused on the research from her latest book, Dr. Nurse: Science, Politics, and the Transformation of American Nursing (University of Chicago Press, 2022). It brilliantly examined American nursing in the 1950s, the devaluation of the nurse sciences by institutions and the government, and changing racial and gender-based discrimination. Part of the transformation of American nursing was a negotiation of who could be a nurse and the responsibilities of the role. This direct paralleled YHP's research on the colour bar in the UK. African nurses in Britain were pushed towards the State Enrolled qualification (SEN) instead of a State Registered Nurse (SRN) qualification, which was considered to be of lesser value. This distinction was not a reflection of skill or ability from the women we researched and interviewed, but rather an acknowledgement of who the institutions considered a fully qualified nurse. Despite the differences in the work and research of the speakers, we found that there were a lot of relatability and intersecting themes between us.


Other talks during the symposium touched on topics including changing antenatal practices in Europe, ethnographic research in community mental health, and missionary nurses in east Africa. At the end of the day, there was a celebration of the work of Professor Jeanette Pols by her colleagues and former students. We heard rave reviews of her latest publication, Reinventing the Good Life: An Empirical Contribution to Philosophy of Care. We were able to spend time socialising and meeting the event’s organisers and attendees at a reception, during which we answered many fascinating questions about YHP and our work. 


YHP did not attend the workshops organised for the second day as they were to be held in Dutch. Instead, we had the opportunity to explore Amsterdam as a group. One particular highlight was our visit to the National Slavery Monument and the Museumplein. We would like to extend a huge thank you to the organisers at the PULSE network for inviting us! 


Below, we have some reflections from our members that presented at the event.

Tionne: "Our excursion to Amsterdam was YHP’s first international trip, and we were all excited to experience a new audience for our work. Alongside the fascinating talks we heard throughout the conference, our panel was very well received, and we have solidified a new realm of contacts amongst historians we hope to collaborate with in future. We, as members, also benefited from the trip as a team-building exercise and made memories I'm sure we will all fondly remember! Most importantly, on this trip we were able to share our work on our project on the history of African Women in the British health service. In doing so, we fostered a lively conversation in which panelists, and the audience, drew many parallels with the histories of marginalised and ‘othered’ people across British and European societies of the past (and present!). A recurring discussion point amongst the audience and our members was the way in which African women had previously been overlooked and uncredited for their contributions to the early health service, and the NHS, across the 20th century. We were honoured to bring their stories, and the “bigger picture” of British history to a Dutch audience."
National Slavery Monument, Amsterdam
Isra: "I found it interesting to hear about how other historians approached issues like the duty of care involved with oral history. We listened to researchers’ experiences of encountering people who were distrustful of universities and other institutions due to their feelings of being exploited. It made me question how YHP can build on our oral history practices to make sure interviewees continue to feel valued and listened to. Panelists also discussed the emotions that can arise when practising oral history, which reminded me of my own experiences filming interviews for YHP’s latest project, during which we often laughed and deeply empathised with our project participants. I found there was a lot of relatability between the panelists, despite how different our work was. I loved visiting the Stedelijk Museum, which surprised me with the amount of Black British archival material there was in various exhibitions. One room displayed a mixed media installation titled ‘Lessons of the Hour, 1983 (Who Killed Colin Roach?)’, produced by artist Isaac Julien. The black-and-white photographs on the wall, many of them taken by Julien, captured placards and protestors in the aftermath of the killing of a young Black man named Colin Roach in police custody in 1983. The film relayed the tragic first-hand accounts of his family. Much of the material directly mirrored images of the Black Lives Matter protests in London during the summer of 2020. During a time in which basic inclusion and diversity is being condemned as a culture of ‘wokeness’, witnessing this exhibition served as a sombre reminder of how crucial it is to preserve and teach Black British history, in spite of those who deny its importance, and at times, its existence."

'Lessons of the Hour, (Who Killed Colin Roach?)', Stedelijk Museum. Artist: Isaac Julien
Alex: "The talks were rooted in a multidisciplinary approach and throughout the day I ruminated over the concept of medicine or care-giving as a socially negotiated agreement. Each talk provided me with a new set of questions and observations.  Throughout history forms of care-giving or 'medicine' developed in respect to the environment and materials people had to hand. The people who would give the care were agreed within societies – whether it be across gendered lines, ethnic or age-based. The roles and responsibilities afforded to them would go on to form the concept of 'nurse', 'doctor', and more. I found it thought–provoking and will relish in this opportunity for some time."
Hannah: "This was my first time visiting the Netherlands and it was a privilege to spend my first visit presenting the amazing work of the Young Historians Project. A part of this project that I have always found really interesting was that many of the African women in the labour force in 20th century Britain were forced to take on roles that did not pay as highly as other specialities and were generally less desired than their white peers. These roles included providing healthcare and support for people with disabilities, chronic illness, the elderly, and those with mental health conditions. This part of our research really resonated with the themes explored in the keynote speeches and other lectures. A particular stand out for me was the discussion of the community mental health care model adopted in Trieste, Italy in the 1970s and the establishment of the Mental Patients Association in Canada in 1972. The rest of the trip gave us the chance to do some sightseeing, so we did a boat tour after the symposium ended. We also tried to visit the Black Archives – home to historical material relating to Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles, South America, and Africa. Unfortunately their original building was closed, so I will definitely be returning for this soon!"


A mural next to the entrance of The Black Archives, Amsterdam


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