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Ann Shaw and Carole Reeves (eds), The children of Craig-y-nos: life in a Welsh tuberculosis sanatorium, 1922–1959, London, Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, 2009, pp. v, 149, 184 illus., £9.99 (paperback 978-0-85484-126-4).
Interest in the history of tuberculosis has been apparent for many years, although the history of childhood tuberculosis has rather lagged behind. Books on this area have concentrated on pre-tubercular children rather than those in sanatoria with active tuberculosis. Reeves and Shaw are therefore part of a small group that considers the tubercular child, and their work is a very welcome addition. The size of the project alone is noteworthy, with the book including interviews and photographs from over ninety people who were patients or staff at Craig-y-nos.
The book is organized chronologically with an introduction by Reeves and Shaw for each decade and then oral history accounts and photographs portraying life in Craig-y-nos sanatorium. This places the institution and the oral history interviews in the context of the history of tuberculosis nationally. The concentration on one sanatorium and four decades allows great detail, with interviewees describing the minutiae of institutional life. Topics covered include relationships between patients, staff and their families. Punishment, hospital food, treatment and entertainment also loom large.
Because this work began as a community project it may have led to each named interview being printed whole and not split thematically. This has both a positive and a negative impact on the finished work. On the positive side the voice of the interviewee comes across strongly and, together with the photographs, the reader can really imagine the experience. Presumably, it also led to increased satisfaction for the interviewees who could easily recognize their own contribution. However, some thematic study of the interviews would also have been useful. The present format makes it difficult to compare, for example, the response of a number of the interviewees about topics such as hospital schooling, punishment, or the advent of streptomycin.
The use of a “blog” format at the start of the project influences the work in a number of ways. It means that many interviewees had the opportunity to read about the experience of other past patients before their own interview. This may have led to a gentle modification of stories to fit in with the general view expressed. The “blog” also meant that names were in the public domain from the start. Therefore Welsh interviewees did not ask for anonymity. Reeves and Shaw comment that in Wales tuberculosis was “the disease never spoken about except in hushed whispers”(p. 5), but interviewees were self selected and knew there would be a book and media stories. The openness resulted in reunions attended by both ex-staff and ex-patients, which had two results. Some anger apparent in early conversations was defused, but this resulted in memories about ex-staff becoming moderated. This was revealed as revised stories appeared on the blog. Reeves commented, “which are the ‘real’ ones? Who can tell?” (p. 8). The interviews used in the book were, however, recorded before most of the reunions.
In conclusion, this is a satisfying book that will be enjoyed by historians of medicine but also the general public because of the lively human interest. The photographs alone are a wonderful record of sanatorium life. They show the wealth of material held in many local communities, which should be collected and saved before it is lost for ever. All in all, this reviewer believes that the Craig-y-nos project is a significant historical work, and that the book, in particular, is a very good read.