During my time on Diseases of Modern Life I will be researching the development of the first aid movement in Britain. The late nineteenth century saw the establishment of the St. John Ambulance Association in England and the St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association in Scotland, both of which sought to train citizens in providing emergency treatment to those taken ill or injured, and to make available ambulances and other medical sundries in times of both peace and war. The development of a formalised ‘first aid’ movement in the 1870s and 1880s was a critical moment in the relationship between the medical profession and the public. It invited civic participation in practical healthcare, an initiative which aligned with the medical profession’s public health mission. However, the involvement of the lay public in the treatment of illness and injury also sparked concerns about the extent to which those outside the profession should be party to medical knowledge, and the impact this might have on both the cultural and economic standing of doctors.
More broadly, my research seeks to situate the first aid movement within contemporary perceptions of modernity. Historians have tended to explain the development of first aid through the industrialisation of society, positing its establishment as a response to the injurious consequences of modern life, such as those induced by roads, railways and overcrowding. The St. John Ambulance certainly played upon this notion when promoting itself. However, a closer reading of contemporary sources authored by first aid advocates reveals a more complex narrative, in which many implied that modern life, rather than creating an inherent need for first aid, was deadening peoples’ abilities and impulses to care for themselves and one another. Hence, for some of its advocates, first aid was a means of reviving a ‘natural’ and lost art of self-care that was in danger of disappearing.