Crossing Boundaries: The History of First Aid in Britain and France, 1909‐1989

  • Doyle, Barry (CoI)
  • Beatrice Wall, Rosemary (PI)

Project: Research

Project Details


Over the past twenty years historians have developed a sophisticated understanding of the growth of primary and secondary healthcare provision in Britain. However, this focus on professional, institutional care has overlooked the history of the personal, voluntary and communitarian forms of healthcare generally known as first aid. Yet understanding the trajectory of non-institutional treatment across the twentieth century, and in particular the effect of freely available universal healthcare provision on the willingness of the public to self-treat minor injuries, can help to illuminate the boundaries of state provision, individual responsibility and voluntary action in the era of welfare states. Moreover, tracing the fate of first aid provides an opportunity to inform responses to the current crisis in the British National Health Service, especially recent heavy demands on GP surgeries and accident and emergency departments.

First aid is a broad term encompassing activities from applying a sticking plaster, to preparing for and managing the effects of war. We will focus on the initial treatment of minor injuries and techniques for basic life support undertaken by people other than recognized medical professionals. A major focus for our research will be the first aid activity and the diffusion of first aid knowledge conducted by the British Red Cross. Furthermore, the typicality of the British experience will be considered through an examination of the development of non-professional treatment in France. France has been chosen as its healthcare system and voluntary associations developed in different ways to those in England. In comparison to England there has been a more prominent, and controversial, role for religious organisations, a greater level of state intervention in the oversight of first aid providers and a set of priorities strongly influenced by the experience of war and invasion. Moreover, the centrality of contributory insurance and the freedom of doctors from state employment may have shaped the continuing role of first aid within the French system.

Currently, there is a lack of literature on first aid written by historians, and there is also a dearth of evaluation of past first aid practices by medical researchers, which has recently been addressed by a study initiated by the British Red Cross. A medical humanities approach to this topic offers a more rounded view of first aid, examining memories and reflections of first aid practice along with traditional archival research. Our methods include examining records in archives of the British and French Red Cross, St John Ambulance, the National Archives in Britain and the National Library in France, British and French local archives, and the Mass Observation Archive in Sussex which documents public opinions. Further research will explore educational books and films, and oral testimony in order to investigate the policy and techniques of first aid. In addition to social, cultural, economic and political history, our approach is informed by sociological concepts in relation to the boundaries of knowledge between differently trained people. How are safe practices chosen for the public, while preserving the status of trained professionals? Which objects and practices are the medical profession willing to share and which are the public willing to use? Our evaluation of these topics will be enhanced through group interviews, to which working and retired medical practitioners and British Red Cross first aid volunteers and co-ordinators will contribute in order to discuss the history of first aid practices and opportunities for enhancing policy and practice today. Publications, a website, and interactive events will disseminate the outcomes of our research.
Effective start/end date1/06/161/11/18


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