Aberdeen Oral Histories: 'Stella the bajanella'
Oral history recordings allow us to capture an individual's first-hand experience and perspective of the past. They augment the information provided by written records, statistical data, photographs and other historical material. These interviews not only contain personal information about each individual but reflect on the history and development of the University.
The University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections are currently undertaking a project to document medical oral histories which aims to offer insight into medicine in Grampian post second world war. The medical oral histories will join a larger body of over 200 interviews with around 170 individuals connected to the University.
The Aberdeen University Oral History Archive began in 1985 as part of the Aberdeen University Quincentenary Project. The interviews were originally intended to aid historians working on monographs commemorating the University's Quincentenary. Several interviews in the collection are with doctors and nurses and detail their time studying medicine during the first and interwar periods. Transcripts of many of these are available through the Archive Collections catalogue.
To give a flavour of the rich information these interviews hold, this blog post will look at some of the information contained in one interview with Dr Stella Henriques.
Stella Henriques was born in 1899. She began her formal medical education in 1918. However, her medical experience started far earlier, helping her father in his surgery. She describes how...
“ From the age of five, I had been hauled into the surgery for people to spit into basins when Dad had pulled out teeth, because you all pulled out teeth in those days. So that I knew nothing else and medicine was the one thing I wanted to do and always had.”
This experience was unlike so many of her other female classmates who had been encouraged into the medical profession by their headmistresses.
“there was a very large intake of women because, so I understood, I was never told, that it was up in Aberdeen that the Senatus got worried about the future of medical careers of profession and they went round the girls' schools and asked the headmistresses to encourage the girls to go in for medicine.”
The few men on her course when she started were mostly older or had been injured in service. However, the following year once the war was over the number of students doubled and they had to be split into two classes.
Moments in History
Among important historical moments like the Armistice and the Spanish Flu pandemic, Stella was still having classes and exams.
She describes how someone ran into her chemistry class on the morning of November 11th 1918, announcing the war was over and everyone fled down the stairs and abandoned work for the day.
There were “fancy dress march with the torches that night and then, of course, the next day - we were never content - we decided we'd have the day off and the Senatus said "No, you'll go back to work." We said, "no we weren't going", and we didn't go but they had their own way back on us. I know Professor Trail looked at us very soberly and he said "The war is not over yet, this is only an Armistice." But of course, we couldn't understand this, we were dotty at the thought of it. Anyhow they had their own back on us, because when they did the exams, they asked the questions out of all the stuff we ought to have been getting the day that we didn't go.”
The following week half of her class was down with the Spanish flu. Stella recalls they were lucky no one died up there, but she did become very ill. Her weight dropped below 8 stone, and she developed a cough that lasted for 6 months. Her dad, being so concerned at her appearance on her visit home at Christmas, wrote a letter to her landlady ‘imploring Mrs Grade to take care of his motherless daughter and to see that I got tripe’ (her father's apparent cure for all ills).
During her time as a student, Stella was also active in fundraising. She described traipsing up and down the tenements to raise money for sterilized gauze to be used on patients, raising a substantial £1200. She was also part of the Aberdeen Student Show, raising more money as the first ‘Stella the Bajanella’ - Stella herself was the inspiration for the show’s name. Beginning in 1921, the annual comedy musical and theatrical show started as a fundraising activity for local hospitals. In the first year, Stella the Bajanella was performed at the Men’s Union. When it moved to His Majesty’s Theatre the following year, Stella was replaced by another student, Jean Mackay, who had a stronger voice.
'Stella the Bajanella' cast photograph (1922) Eric Linklater, the writer and main actor, sits in front. On his left sits Jean Mackay, who played the role of Stella after Stella Henricks. University Collections, https://exhibitions.abdn.ac.uk/university-collections/document/10919.
Henriques graduated in medicine in 1923. She went on to work for the Church Missionary Society in Persia, and she was at one time Assistant Medical Officer for the West Riding, Yorks.
This interview was conducted and recorded on 6 September 1986 by Elizabeth Olson. A full transcript is available online. There are also three more interviews with Dr Henrique available through the archive search.