6 best websites for tracing medical history

By Guest, 5 April 2018 - 2:44pm

As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, Jonathan Scott picks the top sites for researching health professionals 

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An operation in a lecture theatre at University College Hospital Medical School, London, 1898

The National Health Service was founded in 1948, and the milestone anniversary is being celebrated in a variety of ways, including new social history projects. Before the NHS healthcare was fragmentary, provided through private treatment, charitable hospitals and dispensaries, and local Poor Law authorities.  

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Many family historians will be more interested in these pre-NHS sources, and there’s an excellent overview of the types of records that may survive for nurses, doctors and surgeons at GenGuide. The web page also lists some resources relating to the training and education of medical professionals.

Hospital staff records will in general be housed either at the local county record office (for example the London Metropolitan Archives boasts records from more than 80 hospitals), or at the hospital itself. And remember that many larger hospitals formed their own nursing schools.

1. Ancestry 


Ancestry leads the pack when it comes to commercially available medical material, through its partnerships with the Wellcome Library, the Royal College of Nursing and the General Medical Council.

Collections include UK Medical Registers,1859–1959; UK and Ireland Medical Directories, 1845–1942; UK and Ireland Nursing Registers, 1898–1968; Queen’s Nursing Institute Rolls of Nurses, 1891–1931; Scotland Nursing Applications, 1921–1945; UK Midwives Rolls, 1904–1959; UK Dentist Registers, 1879–1942; GMC student registers, 1882–1937; and even Physiotherapy Registers, 1895–1980.

2. The Retreat Archive

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The Retreat, a psychiatric hospital that was founded in York by the Society of Friends and opened in 1796, pioneered a more humane treatment of mental health. Its unusually complete archives are held by the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, and a project to digitise the hospital’s records has just come to an end.

The results are more than 650,000 digital images freely available via the Borthwick catalogue. Other collections at the institute include the York NHS archive, OS maps of hospitals and hospital estates in the area (1909–1983), and the records of many older hospitals that were taken over by the NHS in 1948.

3. The British Medical Journal

The National Archives

The first issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) appeared in October 1840, a 16-page publication which went by the original title of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal. Today, with the BMJ still going strong, you can explore its archive online. It’s free and a potential gold mine. You may find papers or letters written by your medical ancestors, plus the BMJ carries very useful obituaries.

However, optical character recognition sometimes struggles with the early issues, so make sure you use wildcards and test variant spellings when searching.

4. Wellcome Trust


The Wellcome Trust is the route to a wealth of resources, projects, databases and advice for anyone researching the history of medicine, as well as those hunting for ancestors who were doctors, nurses, midwives, physicians, surgeons, apothecaries or dentists. The parent website leads to the Wellcome Collection – the trust’s museum in London. This is where you’ll also find the Wellcome Library.

However, there is so much material here that it can be confusing. So start with Wellcome Family History, which links to genealogical guides relating to different branches of medicine. 

5. British Army Nurses


The National Archives has created several guides to researching healthcare, hospitals, doctors and nurses, military medics and wartime volunteers.

This page contains more than 15,000 service records of nurses who served during the First World War, including those from the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and the Territorial Force Nursing Service, which you can search and download. These can reveal where a nurse trained, plus references, hospitals, field ambulances or other medical units in which they served, and even their superiors’ opinion of them.

6. Royal College of Nursing


Chosen by Michelle Higgs, author of Tracing Your Medical Ancestors and Life in the Victorian Hospital:

“If you’re researching an ancestor who worked as a nurse, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) website is well worth checking . You’ll find some extremely useful and detailed guides about tracing various types of nurses at different periods, for example pre-registration before 1922
and during wartime, which can all be downloaded in PDF format.

“Another excellent area of the website is the Special Collections section. Here you can read digitised historical nursing journals, which are rich sources of information about the evolution of the profession. The most valuable sections for family historians might be those that list appointments, retirements, marriages and deaths. You can also find out more about working conditions at the time your ancestor was nursing, issues of the day, and nurses’ pay and pensions.

“The RCN Archives has digitised the whole of the Nursing Record/British Journal of Nursing covering the period 1888–1956 (Nursing Record was first published in 1888, becoming the British Journal of Nursing from 1902). Family historians can search the database by name or by keyword, and each issue can also be browsed page by page.” 

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