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‘X-rays don't tell lies’: the Medical Research Council and the measurement of respiratory disability, 1936–1945

McGuire, Coreen (2019) '‘X-rays don't tell lies’: the Medical Research Council and the measurement of respiratory disability, 1936–1945.', The British Journal for the History of Science, 52 (3). pp. 447-465.


During the first half of the twentieth century, the mining industry in Britain was subject to recurrent disputes about the risk to miners’ lungs from coal dust, moderated by governmental, industrial, medical and mining bodies. In this environment, precise measurements offered a way to present uncontested objective knowledge. By accessing primary source material from the National Archives, the South Wales Miners Library and the University of Bristol's Special Collections, I demonstrate the importance that the British Medical Research Council (MRC) attached to standardized instrumental measures as proof of objectivity, and explore the conflict between objective and subjective measures of health. Examination of the MRC's use of spirometry in their investigation of pneumoconiosis (miner's lung) from 1936 to 1945 will shed light on this conflict and illuminate the politics inherent in attempts to quantify disability and categorize standards of health.

Item Type:Article
Full text:(AM) Accepted Manuscript
Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 4.0.
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Publisher statement:This article has been published in a revised form in The British Journal for the History of Science This version is published under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND. No commercial re-distribution or re-use allowed. Derivative works cannot be distributed. © British Society for the History of Science 2019
Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:28 October 2022
Date of first online publication:22 July 2019
Date first made open access:28 October 2022

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