Medical Misadventure in New Zealand – Alannah Tomkins on her new research.

I have spent most of my career trying to wedge the disciplines of History and English closer together, and recently I’ve had some success in integrating the two more decisively in my teaching.  My third-year History modules are partly assessed by creative writing.  Now, though, I’m investigating the scope for integrating creative writing into historical research, and this will underpin a big grant application I make this year.

The Leverhulme Trust pays for international fellowships, whereby academics can spend between three months and one year in a partner institution abroad to foster new lines of research through overseas collaboration or to encourage ‘discipline-hopping’.  I’ll be applying in late autumn 2014 for a grant to spend three months in New Zealand attached to the University of Waikato.  If I’m successful I’ll be working with historian Catharine Coleborne and creative writer Sarah Shieff to look at the history of middle-class and professional migrants from Britain to New Zealand in the period 1840 to 1907.

Waikato

I will be hoping to look at the experiences of migrant professionals in two ways.  First, I’ll be analysing familiar historical records to uncover stories of turbulent careers.  I’m confident that information like this exists, because I undertook a preliminary research trip to New Zealand in 2012 and found a number of professional men who were, for example, admitted to Auckland’s first insane asylum as patients in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Second, I’ll be using some of the mini-biographies I uncover to complete some creative writing about the experience and challenges of such long-distance migration.  My first idea is that I’ll use the outline details of real men and their families to imagine a series of letters, either by the men themselves or by the people nearest to them, about their disappointments and struggles.  I’m particularly interested in the way that, even in an era well before air travel, some men regarded the world as their oyster and undertook a series of global moves; some men’s careers saw them working in Canada, Australia and elsewhere, in addition to Britain and New Zealand.  In some ways this initial confidence makes later professional struggles all the more poignant.Victorian men who were solicitors, doctors, clergymen and holding other professional positions (and they were almost always men) travelled to New Zealand in some numbers in search of lucrative opportunities to practice their skills.  All of New Zealand’s doctors, for example, had to come from somewhere else before 1887 because there was no medical school on site that was graduating students until that year.  But not all of them were entirely successful, or suffered the same sorts of fate as unsuccessful men in Britain and elsewhere.  The Reverend Mr Hodgkinson, for example, sailed for New Zealand on the Steadfast in 1851 but sadly suffered mental ill health and died shortly after the ship’s safe arrival.

This work will sit alongside my current historical research, on British doctors whose careers were either temporarily or permanently derailed by misfortune or error.  My forthcoming book Medical Misadventure in an age of Professionalisation will consider British medical men who either went bankrupt, were accused of neglect or violent crime, who were ill and admitted to hospital or who committed suicide.

If the grant application is successful, it will almost certainly mean that in future New Zealand will become a new regular among the topics covered by my undergraduate modules, and my attempts to bring history and creative writing together will be significantly enhanced: wish me luck!

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