Becoming a Public Historian: Cissy Walmsley

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.  

In this interview, Jessica talks to Cissy Walmsley about her project.  

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation? 

CW: I want to work in the field of film and television, with a historical focus, post-graduation, so I was immediately intrigued by the possibility of creating a piece of film for my dissertation. Having a chance to gain insight into the industry was such a fantastic opportunity, and not one I thought I would be presented with within my BA, so I was really excited about it. I was a little nervous about the choice, but I had loved the Public History unit we completed in second year, so I knew it was something I was passionate about. As someone who is most comfortable thinking creatively, I realised I was much more suited to the practice based than the standard 10,000 word dissertation. 

Picture shows Cissy smiling at the camera

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?  

CW: I created a 30-minute documentary called ‘Cancer Culture’, which considered the cultural significance of cancer in the United Kingdom from a historical perspective, with a particular focus on gender and accessibility of treatment.  

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?  

CW: My father died from cancer when I was 16, so there was a personal desire to understand the disease better. During my father’s illness, I had become aware of the fear surrounding cancer, and the many different ways people approach and talk about the disease, describing a patients treatment as a battle, for example. I wanted to understand the roots of this fear and this war imagery. My father had received treatment through the NHS, and while his individual doctors and nurses were fantastic, I wanted to directly address the underfunded and overworked side of the NHS, and how this impacted patients.  

Image shows a picture of planet earth with cancerous cells in orbit and a title reading: 'Cancer Culture'

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation? 

CW: I loved the opportunity to be creative. Spending days in my room filming different scenes and editing sections together, it gave me real insight into the media industry, as did working with an artist on the score. I saw the potential for collaboration between creatives. Most of all though, the chance to connect with other women who had lost loved ones to cancer, and who had undergone treatment themselves, is something I will always be grateful for. As I say in the introduction to the documentary, our conversations created something positive from the pain caused by cancer.  

JM: What did you find challenging? 

CW: I did find these interviews challenging. Asking strangers to share such a traumatic and personal part of their lives with me was a big ask. I made the decision to tell them about my own loss, which meant that these interviews became conversations about shared experiences, rather than more formulaic questions and answers.  

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve? 

CW: For certain aspects of the history, primary sources were simply not available. Particularly for the very early history of cancer, which dated back as far as 2500BC. This was initially a problem, as I had nothing to show whilst I was speaking during this section. In the end, I decided to include hand sketched animations, carried out by myself, depicting these different subjects. 

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?  

CW: It may seem a little cliché but I have definitely learned to think outside of the box, though I only named one there were countless small problems and hurdles to overcome throughout this process. I don’t think I could have kept going had I not been so passionate about the subject. I also learnt that including your personal relationship to the history in the project needn’t distract from the content, and can in fact strengthen it.  

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians? 

CW: I think public historians have the opportunity to show the importance of the historical discipline, and to show how interesting it is. We can take a subject which one might not immediately think of as having a historical perspective and demonstrate how this can actually say a lot about our relationship with it. I would advise other public historians not to shy away from using their work to address issues in the present day. Again, this can be a way to illustrate the relevance of the historical profession. For example, though ‘Cancer Culture’ was primarily about history, I used this history to question our fear surrounding the disease, and to challenge viewers to help dismantle the stigma surrounding the ‘C-word’. I also directly called out our government for its lack of support for the NHS, by comparing the current situation to historical cancer treatment.  

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation? 

CW: Don’t give up! There were points where I couldn’t imagine finishing the project, but it has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my university career. Though it might seem like a bigger workload than a standard dissertation, I actually found it to be a lot less stressful in the long run, as the bulk of the work took place earlier in the year, before other coursework was due in. Most importantly, if you are excited by the idea of the practice based, go for it! 

JM: How can people find out more about your project? 

CW: You can find the full documentary on YouTube by following this link:  

There is also an Instagram page:  

And feel free to get in contact if you have any questions! 

Becoming a Public Historian: Isabel King

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Isabel King about her project.

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

IK: After completing the compulsory unit ‘History in Public’ and enjoying it, I realised that I want to work in public history once I leave university. So, when the opportunity to actually create my own piece of public-facing work came up, I was keen to take it, as it will (hopefully!) help me in my future career.

Image shows Isabel standing leaning against a wall, smiling

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

IK: I created a podcast mini-series discussing the representation of the Holocaust in popular culture. I did this through interviewing three historians about their thoughts on using historical fiction as education more generally, and then critically analysed three interpretations – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Book Thief, and Holocaust – to show what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ about each.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

IK: I think historical fiction is a major part of any historical study, as well as being a popular form of entertainment. Often, such fiction gets taken at face value, and I wanted to highlight that this assumption is dangerous due to the misconceptions that fiction can generate about real historical events. However, I also wanted to show that this doesn’t mean that historical fiction isn’t helpful, it just needs to be critically analysed by the consumer! I made the podcast to engage the public in these discussions so they can continue to consumer historical fiction, but with more understanding and a critical eye.

Image shows the railway line into Auschwitz, with the title 'Misinterpretation: Historical Pop Culture Representations of the Holocaust' and icons showing a television, book, and film.

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

IK: Having the final product. It felt like such an achievement when I released my podcast series, because an idea that I had simply voiced in a meeting back in September was fully realised by April and could be listened to by anybody!

JM: What did you find challenging?

IK: I honestly found the whole process challenging, because it involved so much independent work, but the most challenging thing was recording and editing the podcast, because I had no prior experience with this. However, it got easier as time went on, and I now have some new skills because of it!

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

IK: My main two problems were finding time to interview the historians, due to availability clashes, and generating enough interest in the podcast when I released it to gain substantial feedback for my critical reflective report.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

IK: I’ve learnt that if you put your mind to it, something to take pride in can be created. I learnt so many new skills and overcame challenges to create a practice-based dissertation that I am happy to share.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

IK: Promotion! Though it is getting more popular, I think public history still needs more people to engage with it – to do this, I believe public historians need to collaborate with both academic historians and the wider public more to promote their work.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

IK: Plan ahead as much as you can. The dissertation is a big commitment and it can sometimes feel like you’re not achieving enough in the time you have, but if you keep on top of things and plan for all eventualities, it means you can deal with any issues as they arise, and progress gradually, rather than having a panicked rush just before the deadline.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

IK: The (Mis)Interpretations podcast can be found here.

Becoming a Public Historian: Kim Singh-Sall

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Kim Singh-Sall about her project.

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

KS: When we did the History in Public project briefs last year, I found that I really enjoyed doing public history and wanted to take up the opportunity of creating a project instead of coming up with just a brief. Creative ways of telling history are not only fun, but also gives you the opportunity to approach history from a much more personal angle, which I wanted to explore in my dissertation. We do so many essays, so I thought taking the practice-based dissertation would make me feel more inspired about my dissertation!

Image shows Kim smiling at the camera, wearing a hat

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

KS: I created a short podcast series about the life and legacy of Sophia Duleep Singh. She was the youngest daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, but was born and brought up in England and was Queen Victoria’s goddaughter. She was an English socialite and became a Suffragette. I wanted to tell her story, as she is a largely unknown figure in both British and Suffragette history, but also because she was a British-Punjabi woman, like me. My approach was therefore very personal, as I framed the podcast around identity, specifically relating to nationality and ethnicity. I drew on Sophia’s and my own experiences to help tell the wider story of what it means to be part of two worlds and balance two identities. I supported my podcast with an Instagram account where I posted episode recaps, recommendations for further readings, and photographs.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

KS: This project felt very personal to me. I came across Sophia was I was about 15 or 16 and it was the first time I really saw myself in history, so it feels full circle to do my dissertation on her. I also want more people to know about her, especially British-Indians, because it is so important that people get to see themselves in history.

Image shows a portrait of Sophia Duleep Singh, with her name ‘Sophia’ and the subtitle ‘A History of Belonging’

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: I enjoyed how creative I could be: from writing the scripts, to designing the Instagram posts, to finding the musical interludes in the podcast. It really allowed me to tap into different skill-sets and create something I’ve never done before. I also really enjoyed that it was public facing, because my drive behind the dissertation was wanting more people to know about Sophia, so it felt really great to have people listen and learn about her, possibly feeling some of the things I felt when I first came across her.

JM: What did you find challenging?

KS: I found writing the scripts to be a challenge, because I had to ensure I was being informative, while personal, writing in a way that would lend itself to people listening, rather than reading. I also found recording my audio quite challenging because I definitely over-thought my ‘podcast voice’ and had never edited audio before so it was a lot of trial and error. I’m not very good at navigating technology, so that was a big challenge!

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

KS: My main problem was something I discovered once I’d created the output when I was collecting feedback as I found that no one over the age of 60 had listened. That could mean both a technology and language barrier. I was targeting British-Indians, and definitely relied on my family and family connections to get listeners, but most of the first-generation British-Punjabis don’t speak native English and may have found it difficult to listen to the series.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

KS: Beyond the technical aspects of writing, recording, and editing a podcast, I’ve learned how to make telling history accessible and engaging to an audience who might otherwise not engage with history. The process has spurred me to want to do similar projects in the future as I’ve seen how creative and gratifying it can be to put something out into the world.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

KS: I would say that public history needs more personality and emotions. My project was very personal, and I think it made for a stronger historical communication and engagement with my audience. Not only is it cathartic for historians, but I think it is more interesting for audiences too. Sometimes we might think infusing our historical research or outputs with our own personal reflections, anecdotes, or stories might seem to be overstep, but I think now more than ever that’s what people are looking for. Public history is a great medium to make people feel seen in history, and adopting a personal approach is an effective way to do so.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

KS: Trust the process! The prospect of creating something and putting it out into the world might seem daunting, but it’s a process and isn’t as scary as it seems. I’d say it’s important to have confidence and conviction in yourself – that what you’re creating deserves to be shared. Also, take advantage of the incredibly cool opportunity you have to do literally whatever you want about whatever topic you want. Be creative and have fun with it! On a more practical level, I’d recommend doing a lot of the public history readings for your report in the first term, as well as researching your actual historical content, so in the second term you can really focus on your output before doing your report.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

KS: You can find the podcast on Spotify and follow the Instagram!

Featured Historian: Lorenzo Costaguta

In the latest in our series on historians here at Bristol, we caught up with Lorenzo Costaguta to talk race, class and socialism.

Lorenzo Costaguta is a Lecturer in U.S. History. He is a historian of race and class, with a focus on socialist movements in the United States and Europe. At Bristol, he teaches on radicalism in the United States, labour, race, capitalism, and the American empire.

Portrait picture of Lorenzo Costaguta, smiling, wearing glasses and a shirt in front of a brick wall

Hi Lorenzo, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new book? What’s it about?

The working title of the book is Regardless of Color: Race and the Origins of American Socialism.

It is a history of American socialist racial thinking in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. In the book, I argue against the idea that socialism “didn’t exist” or was irrelevant in the U.S. I contend that the American socialist movement was alive and well, and that one of its distinctive feature was its fixation on race.

In the late nineteenth century, American socialists—the vast majority of which were European immigrants—widely debated socialist organizing across racial and ethnic lines, with the objective of creating a genuinely egalitarian society. Although they were rarely successful in their attempts to go beyond their ethnic enclaves, they laid the foundations upon which a distinctively interethnic and multiracial movement was built in the twentieth century.


How did you become interested in the study of socialism and race in the United States?

I guess that what attracted me in the first place was the key question I discuss in my book, namely the long-standing historiographical riddle about why the most capitalist country in the world didn’t produce an equally powerful left-wing/labour social movement.

In the process of researching and writing my book, I found some of the answers I was looking for. Socialism in the U.S. did exist, but its history developed according to the features of the country. The multiethnic and multiracial composition of its working class set it on a path that differed from its European counterparts; capitalist and governmental repression suffocated its chances to grow.

The centrality of race as a crucial aspect of my project grew as the research progressed. In part, because I found myself reading extensively about immigrant United States, in a period in which the boundaries between race and ethnicity were extremely loose and imprecise, as scholars of whiteness have shown. In part, because I realized the extent to which race and class march alongside in shaping labour relations in the U.S.

Black and white portrait and photograph of Peter H Clark

What is the importance of the history of socialism in the U.S. today? And how important is it to study its history in relation with race?

It’s curious because when I started my Ph.D. in 2012, the first question would have been very difficult to answer. At the time, left-wing politics was almost non-existent in the U.S. I mean, it was there, but surely it didn’t feature in the national news.

Then in 2016 came the first Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and after that the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush and many other progressive politicians, the boom of the Democratic Socialists of America, the second Bernie Sanders campaign, and so on.

We now live in a moment when democratic socialist politicians are a powerful group in the Democratic Party and have national relevance and visibility. I invite you to look at the racial and ethnic composition of this group: its diversity is a key ingredient of its success. Studying American socialism, and intersecting it with a focus on race, is crucial to understand how we got here.


What advice would you give to a student interested in socialism and race in the U.S.?

First of all, I would tell them: excellent choice!

Secondly, I would invite them to broaden their areas of interest and read both about the crucial importance of race as an organizing principle of the history of the United States and about the glorious, but also tragic, history of radicalism in the U.S. Socialism is one of the many strands of political activism that made the country into what it is today. From the movement to abolish slavery to suffragism to gay rights to environmental activism, American radicals really did shape the history of the country.


What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Something that my PhD supervisor once told and that really stayed with me: that history writing is all about rewriting. The first version of your paper is just the beginning of the process. Only through extensive rewriting you will get to produce excellent scholarship.

This is something I repeat very (too!) often to my students, although I do not expect them to use five years to complete the revisions of their essays, which is the time it took me to revise my PhD into a book….


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

It is a Pulitzer Prize-winning sociological study that follows the story of eight families in Milwaukee as they try to make ends meet in a housing system designed to make profit out of them with complete disregard for their personal conditions. A devastating account of the reality of poverty, displacement and suffering of millions of Americans today. The book has links with many periods of the history of the U.S., but its real value is the light it sheds on modern-day U.S.—a rich country with mind-blowing levels of poverty. And the methodology of the study is so incredibly fascinating: Desmond lived for years with the eight families, sharing every aspect of their lives, before writing the book. The level of compassion and care with which the book is written made me really think about what we academics and students can and should do to contribute to our societies’ welfare.


If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

The amount of possibilities is something that makes my head spinning.

I will stick with my area of academic expertise, and I will say North America before the U.S. existed. A paradise lost. Imagine seeing the San Francisco Bay when the area was inhabited only by the indigenous people and perhaps a handful of Spanish colonists, knowing that one day it would become the global centre of economic production of the world, and one of its most humanized and polluted areas…


What’s your must-do Bristol experience?

I moved to Bristol fairly recently, so I am still very much in love with some classic spots of the city. I live close to the Downs, and when the weather was better I spent so much time there! And the Clifton bridge area is fantastic…


What are you working on next?

A couple of years ago I started working on a project on socialism and race in the Second International (1889-1914).

It is a straightforward expansion of my first book, whose aim is to explore how socialist movements across the world addressed racism at the turn of the twentieth century. The project identifies the socialist Second International as one of the first transnational spaces of confrontation on ideas of race for workers across the world. Founded in 1889 as a loose federation of socialist parties and trade unions, the International gathered workers from Europe, the U.S., parts of South America, Asia and Africa. While socialists rarely discussed race as a distinct issue, they debated closely aligned notions, such as colonialism, immigration and imperialism. By reconstructing these debates and decentring the history of the International through the inclusion of subaltern and colonial voices, my hope is to recast the period in which the Second International existed as a crucial moment when the racialisation of global working-class ideologies took place.

Sounds amazing! We look forward to seeing it… and thanks for joining us, Lorenzo!

Featured Historian: Vivian Kong

In the latest in our running series on historians in the department, we hear from Vivian Kong, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History. Her research to date has focused largely on interwar Hong Kong, especially on how the city’s global connections and multiethnic urban setting shaped the identity politics and social dynamics there.

Hi, Vivian, thanks so much for joining us! Can we start by asking: what are you working on? What’s it about?

I am now completing a book entitled Multiracial Britishness: Global Networks in Hong Kong, 1910-45, which is adapted from my PhD thesis. In the book, I use Hong Kong as a case study to highlight the diversity of ‘races’ that lived in the British Empire, and how such diversity enriched and complicated notions of Britishness. I use Chinese- and English- language archival records, autobiographical writings, and oral history to explore how residents of different races understood the multivalent concept of being British. The book explains when, why, and how one would engage with the civic sensibilities, material benefits, and legal entitlements of being British. It also examines how the global dispersal of cosmopolitan ideals and rising nationalism shaped the development of Britishness in the interwar years.

Image shows a cityscape at night in the background, lit up skyscrapers. Vivian stands in the foreground.

That’s really interesting. So, how did you become interested in the topic of Britishness?

When I first started my PhD, I thought I’d be writing a thesis on the British community in interwar Hong Kong. But the more I read, the more I realized what being British meant was a question of political, legal, and media debate and dispute, especially for a multiracial colony like Hong Kong.

That I moved to the UK for my PhD in September 2015 also mattered too. The Brexit debates and Britain’s increasing turn inwards during the past few years pushed me to see that the meaning of Britishness is still a question of debate and dispute. It also made me ponder at what points one form of Britishness might be more relevant than another. This all made me become more interested in the question of what being British means…

…the rest, as one might say, is history!

What is the importance of Multiracial Britishness today?

While we’d like to think Britishness is less racially defined than in the timeframe of my book (1910-45), questions such as what British values are and who gets to be British are still being asked and contested often enough in public discussion. Seeing how Britishness existed in multiple, varied forms in colonial Hong Kong, where whiteness was supposed to matter most, gives us insights in thinking about what it means to be British today.

The book, in showing how colonial subjects embraced, used, and remade conceptions of Britishness based on their needs and experiences, also reminds us that Britishness meant much more than whiteness. Being British was not only the monopoly of those who were white and/or from the British Isles. Complex multivalent interpretations of Britishness by colonial subjects are just as important to understanding and defining Britishness and imperial culture as those made by the ‘colonisers’. It also helps us appreciate not only the compatibility of Britishness with other existing identities, but also the issues many face as they engage with Britishness.

Multiracial Britishness also helps us understand more about Hong Kong today . Even as the ‘handover’ in 1997 marked the end of British colonial rule over the city, Britishness still matters to many Hong Kongers.

In summer 2020 the UK government announced a new pathway for Hong Kong residents who hold the British Nationality (Overseas) passports to settle in the UK with their dependents. My book reminds readers of the long history of engagement that Hong Kongers have made with Britishness, and also, sadly, how racism had at times obstructed such engagements. It offers us timely insight into the historic course of Hong Kong’s social development, and Britain’s commitment to Hong Kong and its citizens.

What advice would you give to a student interested in Hong Kong history

As someone who’s committed to study Hong Kong history from a global approach, I’d say read widely and make sure you read beyond Hong Kong history. Given the city’s global connections, there’s no way we can understand its development and social dynamics comprehensively without contextualizing the city within wider socio-political trends.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

It’s very hard to decide on one! I have two: one book and one archival document.

There is the wonderful book, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, by Julia Laite. Very well-written and what an inspiring and innovative work!

The other is a school dinners menu I came across by chance in Kresen Kernow during my research trip to Cornwall this summer. It listed out the meals that the school pupils were getting in 1937. This has nothing to do with what I went to the archives for – but I love how it gives me some insight into the day-to-day life at the time, and also how the pupils of the Liskeard County School in 1937 had a very potatoes-heavy diet!

Image shows a list of foods from this school menu

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

Get fish-n-chips from Clifton Fish Bar and eat it on the lawn near the Clifton Observatory with the Suspension Bridge in view. That’s where you’d usually find me on Saturday afternoons in summer.

What are you working on next?

A book about a Eurasian woman, and the web of family relationships she had in Britain, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore… Born in late 19th century Hong Kong, the protagonist had quite an eventful life. She moved to Cornwall at the age of 10. She was an award-winning artist and photographer in her early 20s, a V.A.D nurse during WW1, and a hotel and boarding house owner in interwar London. In 1937, under suspicion of brothel keeping, she and her husband were deported to Hong Kong, from where they moved to Singapore to join her in-laws.

The book will follow her and her family’s life journeys, and examine their connections with colonial policing in Hong Kong, Christianity in Republican China, overseas Chinese diasporas, and London’s interwar economy. It will explore racial politics, womanhood, and the meaning of respectability in the twentieth century.

We can’t wait! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Vivian.

Disability History Month Snapshots: Fitting and Misfitting

In the third of our posts for Disability History Month, Lena Ferriday writes about the novelist Dinah Craik.

In 1881, at the age of fifty-five and six years before her death, novelist Dinah Craik took a sixteen-day excursion around the Cornish coastline. Craik’s reflections on this experience, recorded in a published travel journal, bring to attention a range of narratives regarding differently abled bodies which converged at the nineteenth-century coast, which became seen as a space which emphasised a linear pathway from illness to health, which differently abled bodies did not conform to. This post highlights the way in which discourses of different abilities have historically relied on the fit, or misfit, between body and environment.

Image shows a dark print of the cliffs and sea.

Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, ‘An Unsentimental Journey Through Cornwall’ (London: Macmillan and Co, 1884) p. 15.

Nineteenth-century medical discourse attested to the coast as a therapeutic space. Physicians often prescribed visits to Cornwall for a ‘change of air’, expecting that the cold, strong, fresh winds would arrest the patients’ bodies from the state of ‘melancholy’ with which they had been diagnosed. For Craik, indeed, the Cornish coast was a corporeally nourishing space. ‘The air so fresh and pure, yet soft and balmy’, she recalled ‘it felt to tender lungs like the difference between milk and cream. To breathe became a pleasure instead of a pain.’ Concurrently, however, discourses of adventure culture considered coastal landscapes an ideal place for testing the corporeal capabilities of bodies, the difficulty of navigating them integral to their appeal.

In neither discourse, however, did the differently abled aging body cohere with the landscape. It could not be ‘cured’ by the coastal air, nor its capabilities attested to by navigation across the the cliffs. Indeed, Craik wrote extensively of the continual reminders of her body’s limitations posed by the landscape of the coast, which caused her discomfort and pain. For her younger travelling companions, ‘the picturesque or romantic always ranked second to the fun of a scramble’ as the ‘descent to this marine paradise […] seemed difficult enough to charm’ them. In comparison Craik was incapable to move across the cliffs, and even as she sat watching the others ‘scrambling into the most inaccessible places’ she was physically ‘uncomfortable’, negotiating her feet with ‘the long grass to prevent slipping down the slope’.

Whilst Craik was not socially marginalised by way of her body’s abilities, her reflections highlight the extent to which discourses of medicine, health and recreation constructed the coast as a space only physically able or healing bodies could cohere with, and from which the differently abled were excluded.

Reflections on Disability History Month


This Disability History Month, writes Dr. Andy Flack,we would do well to remember that the past is not always a foreign country.

Injustice, exploitation, and pain are happening today, and they can be stopped.  Indeed, Disability History Month (November-December), like the International Day of People with Disabilities (3 December) is a present danger to people living with disabilities.

Perhaps let me qualify that: I’m an historian, and I love history for its own sake. This gives me a particular perspective on the present. Both events tend to fetishize the celebration of ‘super-human’ feats of resilience, of overcoming, on the one hand, while heavily implying that the material marginalisation and suffering of people with disabilities is a thing of the past on the other. Tokenistic, and not infrequently designed and delivered by ‘Normals’ (and often ignoring the desire of people with disabilities to be at the heart of conceptualising and delivering such events), these events risk doing more to silence than to empower.

Whatever happened to ‘Nothing about us without us’…?

Image shows artwork by Elizabeth Thomsen which reads 'Nothing About Us Is For Us Without Us'

“‘Nothing about us without us is for us…'” by Elizabeth Thomsen

People tend to avert their gaze from the ‘problem’ of disability.

The fact that COVID deaths have been sickeningly high among people with a range of physical and learning needs creeps into the news cycle, but soon enough will be conveniently forgotten. It’s eugenics in action, see, nature red in tooth and claw. The same is true of higher education institutions.

I’ll quote Lennard J. Davis at length: ‘…so much of left criticism has devoted itself to the issue of the body, of the social construction of sexuality and gender. Alternative bodies people this discourse … But lurking behind these images of transgression and deviance is a much more transgressive and deviant figure: the disabled body.’ Davis does not here articulate the assumption that such criticism assumes a norm of physical (and mental and psychological) ‘able-bodied, heteronormative, white, normalcy, nor does he directly address race here, but racialized bodies are a critical part of the diversity agenda.

Since disabled people are culturally constructed as the ‘ultimate deviants’, it is not surprising that higher education institutions choose to ignore (or pay tokenistic attention to) the challenge disability presents to a culture that is built on ablism at its extreme. Everyone in the academy is part of the hegemony of ablism – of ‘merit’, ‘high achievement’, ‘ultra-efficiency’, of one-size-fits-all.

What are universities doing to mark Disability History Month?

Is it being deployed as a means of purple-washing away questionable practices? And what about the International Day of People with Disabilities? We need to ask whether any events have been co-created with disabled people themselves to reflect the realities of the world in which they find themselves?

In some ways my institution does good work in rendering the ‘diversity agenda’ visible – gender and BAME pay gaps for instance – but when this is combined with the silence about, or relegation of, other issues of critical importance to peoples’ lives, nothing is achieved except the creation of new ableist hierarchies, new hegemonic marginalizations, new oppressions, new ways of pitting people against each other, and new ways of inflicting pain.

At many HE institutions, the muffled whispers of and about disability are thunderous.

The discourse and practical implementation of ‘reasonable adjustments’ rests on a very subjective view of what is indeed ‘reasonable’, and when there is no protected central budget (the kind of ring-fenced budget that most large organisations worth their salt have…) then the question of what is ‘reasonable’ and what is not becomes one framed by unnecessary and potentially discriminatory financial decisions.

Let’s be under no illusions: people suffer because of these approaches to difference.

They’re not just annoyed and upset for a while (though that’s bad enough). They suffer.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t mark events such as Disability History Month, or, indeed, the International Day of Disabled People.

Something is better than nothing, after all.

See the Disability Employment Charter here

Disability History Month Snapshots: Sister Elizabeth Kenny

In the second of our Disability History Month Snapshots, Dr. Stephen Mawdsley discusses Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the Transformation of Paralytic Polio Treatment in 1940s America.

Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny reformed polio treatment in America. Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a contagious viral disease that attacks the motor neurons of the spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis of the limbs and respiratory muscles and, in some cases, death. Until a safe and effective vaccine was licensed in 1955, many Americans lived in fear of recurring epidemics. Before the 1940s, most medical treatments for paralytic polio were rudimentary and based on limb immobilization and surgery. Such methods were expensive, painful, and often provided limited effectiveness.

Black and white photograph shows Sister Kenny crouching down to talk to two children.

Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sister Kenny with Winifred Gorman (right), an infantile paralysis patient, and Winifred’s sister who has come to the Elizabeth Kenny Institute to see her on visitor’s day. By Jack Delano, 1943, Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs

Medical orthodoxy in America was challenged by Sister Kenny, who had previously devised an approach for treating polio based on experience tending to patients in remote regions of Australia during the 1930s. She devised a method that rejected limb immobilization; instead, it employed massage, physical therapy, and hot wool compresses applied to afflicted limbs to reduce spasms and muscle atrophy. Survivor accounts from the period often describe the smell of hot wool and the feeling of the compresses on the skin.


American physicians were initially unconvinced by Kenny and her method because it challenged decades of precedent. Nevertheless, her approach to polio treatment prevailed due to her dedication, philanthropic alliances, and evidence base. With the assistance of America’s foremost polio charity, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes), Kenny established a professional training and treatment centre to disseminate her method across America. She traveled widely and later expanded the initiative through the establishment of the Sister Kenny Foundation. Kenny’s method proved to be an important milestone in the treatment of polio paralysis and showed the value of therapeutic innovation.


Further reading: Naomi Rogers, Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine (Oxford, 2014).


Disability History Month Snapshots

In the first of our snapshot posts for Disability History Month 2021, Dr. Andy Flack discusses the life of Julia Pastrana.

Julia Pastrana, a First Nations Mexican woman, was born in 1834. She died only twenty-five years later, having lived with a genetic condition known as hypertrichosis terminalis and which, in conjunction with other medical conditions, manifested as a series of physical characteristics – including the hyper production of hair and the swelling of lips and gums – which thoroughly inscribed her body with a gendered, racialized, and speciesist Otherness. This triad of perceptual lenses intersected in transformative ways. In popular discourse, Pastrana was thoroughly ‘freaked’, becoming known as the ‘Bear Woman’, the ‘Ape Woman’, or simply the ‘Nondescript’, and displayed across Europe and North America in the ultimate theatre of stigmatic staring: Even in afterlife, her body was embalmed, ‘freakish’ deviance captured to satiate the probing curiosities of mid-nineteenth-century scientific communities.

Julia Pastrana, “the nondescript”, advertised for exhibition. Colour woodcut. Wellcome Collection.

Pastrana was one among countless people – think Joseph Merrick, Stephen Bibrwoski – whose physical appearance rendered them objects of fascination and, not infrequently, disgust. Leading Disability Studies scholar Lennard J. Davis argues that ‘we live in a world of norms’ and that these ‘norms’ are cultural constructs with histories that need to be excavated. The modern ‘freakshow’ is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of an idea of what it meant to be ‘normal’ – to have a ‘normal body’ – at any particular point in time. And in Pastrana’s afflicted body, we find multiple and intersecting deviations from the supposedly standard types of the Victorian age. In her case, transgressions of gender norms (body hair) combined with culturally and historically contingent ideas of femininity and racialized physical stereotypes to position her as something not-quite-human. At the same time, her unavoidable humanity, captured in the movement of her body and the sound of her voice, meant that she could not be understood as not human (animal) either. ‘Bear woman’, ‘Ape Woman’, ‘Nondescript’; these terms meant that she could be seen as both, a liminal being whose apparently animal inferiority made her eminently exploitable. A commercialized vision of life at the margins. ‘Freakshows’ were alien worlds for the Normals.

Pastrana’s life resonates for people living with disabilities today, for the freakshow is not behind us. The token disabled person, who is thrust forward to speak on behalf of physical deviance, is still a spectacular attraction for the Normals. Public spaces often remain sites of penetrative staring, and animalized disabled lives are formed, figured, and ended at the intersections of gendered, racialized – and many other – experiences and stereotypes.