Cataloguing the archives of Dame Cicely Saunders (1918-2005)

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I’m pleased to announce that the archives of Dame Cicely Saunders, an inspirational medical pioneer, are now ready for consultation.

The archive, housed at King’s College London, has recently been repackaged and catalogued thanks to a generous Wellcome Research Resources Grant. The catalogue can be viewed on the King’s College London website.

I was tasked with cataloguing the papers and in the following post I give an overview of the work involved, challenges and, above all, why the archives matter.

The project

The project began in January 2015 with a survey of the three accessions of Saunders’ papers deposited at King’s between 2006 and 2009. The main task was refining the existing box lists and working out an arrangement for the overall collection.

The process was helped by the previous work undertaken in the King’s College London archives and by the Hospice History project, supervised by Professor David Clark at the University of Sheffield in the 1990s.

It transpired that a lot of the existing arrangement could be adapted and that the bulk of the work would be re-ordering and describing the records in greater detail, in line with international standards of archival description.

The process of cataloguing involves understanding the content of a record, describing types of documents reflecting the context in which the record was created.

This task was greatly assisted by the abundant literature available on Dame Cicely Saunders and the hospice movement, notably from Professor David Clark and Dame Cicely’s biographer, Shirley du Boulay, as well as Saunders’ own prolific body of published and unpublished work.

Some parts of the job were relatively straight-forward. The most time consuming part was cataloguing the copious correspondence files, over 60 archival boxes of material, often handwritten correspondence with colleagues, friends and members of the public. These required close reading in order to identify any sensitive issues that would restrict access to the record.

While cataloguing occupied the majority of my time, another important strand of my work was the necessary preservation work on the collection.

The archive, for the most part, was well maintained, as you would expect from modern records. The main actions needed were basic conversation treatments such as removal of old packaging and repackaging into acid free enclosures.

Additional work also included the repackaging of photographic material in polyester sleeves or bespoke slide boxes and wrapping of artefacts in acid free tissue (mainly awards but also more personal items, such as collected religious icons and souvenirs).

This work could be, at times, laborious but also ended up being the most satisfying: seeing a collection transformed from anonymous standard removal boxes or a stack of tatty photo albums to a wall of uniform archival boxes with pristine printed labels, (there’s a reason why I’m an archivist…)

The final aspect of my role was to generate academic interest in the collection. This involved presenting papers and giving talks on the archive but also regular social media activity.

My advocacy highpoint was the palliative care records workshop that was hosted at King’s in December 2015. The event felt like a fitting tribute to Cicely Saunders’ legacy, highlighting the need for the collective history of end of life care in the United Kingdom and it was an honour and delight to meet Christopher Saunders, Cicely’s younger brother, who graciously stepped in to give the opening lecture.

Challenges and highlights

The main challenge that I faced during the project was acclimatising to the sensitive nature of considerable number of the papers within the collection.

Difficult subjects that they explored will not be new to those who are familiar with her work – death, bereavement, grief, suffering, loss, pain and the right to die. And it was hard not to be moved sometimes when coming across a particularly affecting letter, especially her own bereavements that fuelled her own work and spurred on the creation of St Christopher’s.

Yet, even though some of the archives record moments of individual suffering and sadness, they also reflect many accounts of uplift, salvation, love and kindness and one cannot come away without having a great deal of admiration of Saunders, her staff and institutions involved in delivering end of life care.

The main highlight from the project was getting to know Cicely Saunders’ work through her papers.

It is a unique position to be able to catalogue an individual’s papers and one does develop an awareness of that person’s character, even if you only encounter them in writing.

What I really enjoyed about the papers is how ferociously she fought for the things she cared about – pain management, end of life care and opposition to euthanasia – and how she was no shrinking violet when it came to fighting what she believed in.

However, she could also be pragmatic and open-minded, notably when she performed a volte-face on diamorphine (heroin) in the late 1960s when clinical research recommended using orally taken morphine instead.

Away from the archives, I enjoyed visiting St Christopher’s and meeting the staff and former colleagues of Saunders. It felt akin to a pilgrimage for me, having read so much about its history and I was pleasantly surprised how familiar I was already with the architecture and layout of the hospice. 

Chris has written further about the project to cataloguing this archive on his blog.

This article was originally published on the UK edition of ehospice

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