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Rosemary Leadbeater completed her PhD in March 2016. The title of her thesis is ‘Experiencing smallpox in eighteenth-century England’.
The purpose of my study was to explore the incidence, spread, experience and prevention of smallpox in the eighteenth century. My final project has two strands. Firstly, it presents new knowledge on pathways of smallpox transmission and the nature of familial proximity. The relationship between smallpox mortality, inoculation (immunisation) and overall declining mortality is an ongoing historiographical debate. My research indicates that parental immunity to smallpox was a key factor in reducing smallpox and overall infant mortality in the late eighteenth century, offering a forerunner to modern debates on the protection against childhood diseases today such as polio, mumps, measles and rubella and possibly, in the future in the management of meningitis and ebola. My thesis also argues that influences on the course of smallpox, even before inoculation was widely practised in the second half of the century, were community-constructed rather than epidemiologically based. This factor has been relatively neglected so far in the secondary literature. Through a study of the prevalence of the disease in Oxfordshire I have concluded that smallpox mortality in the county was being controlled through local and familial responsibility; containment and isolation practices were successful in impeding the disease.
The second strand draws from a national body of life-writings in order to investigate theory and practice in smallpox nursing, a much neglected aspect in the history of disease management in the eighteenth century. The role of the smallpox carer has been scrutinised, revealing high levels of stress but also resilience, thanks to integrated and reciprocal support. Spousal, parental and kinship networks were vital components of this care.
My MA in the History of Medicine presented a comparative analysis of the experiences of sickness among pauper communities in Northern England, the East Midlands and Essex. Letters written on behalf of migrant paupers to their home communities were analysed, concluding that regional variations were a significant factor in the characteristics of sickness relating to age, place and environment. This work led itself naturally to a research project on a specific disease.
As a member of staff, I am grateful to Oxford Brookes for giving me support and encouragement with my PhD through the Continuing Professional Development programme. This six-year part time route brought its own challenges, particularly in keeping abreast of current research and maintaining momentum through the progression of achievable goals. However, the reward has been in seeing such a long-term project come to fruition.
I entered higher education as a mature student. Having seen four children and two step-children through higher education (cleaning countless student kitchens along the way!) I resolved to find out what had enticed them in this direction. I soon came to appreciate the passion for exploring new areas of research in the field of the history of medicine, made even more enjoyable by the training that Brookes provides for its research students. Networking with fellow students at training days and symposiums provided a valuable environment for inspiration and knowledge sharing and support in grappling with some of the vagaries of studentship.
One of my future plans is to progress and publish some of the strands of my research which, through the necessary culling process, had to be omitted from the final thesis. I would also like to pursue other lines of enquiry prompted by my research.