Thanks Uncle Henry!

I had a very welcome (no pun intended) early Christmas present yesterday when I heard that the Wellcome Trust will be paying the fee to make my forthcoming book, Payment and Philanthropy in British Healthcare, 1918-1948, open access. This means that instead of paying £95 for a copy, anyone will be able to read it in its entirety for free as an e-book.

Sir Henry Wellcome in 1902

This isn’t the first time I’ve been grateful for the benevolence of the Wellcome Trust. It’s no exaggeration to say I wouldn’t be in academia without it. I was working in Waterstone’s when I received news my bid for a masters prize studentship had been successful. A year later a doctoral prize studentship followed. Without these, I would most likely never have done any postgraduate study. Along with the AHRC and a few others they were very generous in their funding of the first conference I organised, bringing together history of medicine research students from across the UK and Ireland in 2008. When I was unwell and took some time out of my doctoral studies, they kindly allowed some me turn some unused research expenses into an additional stipend, which meant I could finish the PhD. Now they’re funding the major project on the Cultural History of the NHS that I recently started working on.

Medical Humanities (including History) is only a small part of what the Wellcome does, but they still do a lot more than fund research projects. The Wellcome Library is an incredible place – an oasis in the middle of London – where anyone interested can sign up as a member. Wellcome Images is a fantastic resource that not only makes a significant and growing collection of historical and contemporary images relating to medicine, health and the body available online but often also free to use. And there’s plenty more they do as well.

The largesse of the Wellcome was so all-encompassing that, when I was doing my PhD, we used to half-joke about Uncle Henry looking after us. As an historian of philanthropy, I’m all too aware of the flipside. However open-handed a gift, there is always an element of control. For one thing, it’s hard to suggest Wellcome support for the history of medicine, so poorly matched by funders in most other comparable areas of historical study, has not warped research priorities at times. But that’s very much a matter of perspective. It could equally be described as cultivating a dynamic research field, which it surely has – made all the more possible by their support for archives. And the patricianly image and feeling of being taken care of, genuinely (if not uncritically) felt many of us benefiting from the Wellcome’s support, is just as much part of the story.

And now they have also agreed to fund the open access publication of my first monograph. I had been fairly confident they would. Books written based on PhDs funded from October 2013 must be published open access as a requirement of the grant. I was simply voluntarily extending their policy of maximising the visibility of the research they fund back to include my own. Doing so is good for me, as it means more than a small handful of people will be able to read it without paying a prohibitive price. That does mean I’ll take a hit on royalties as many of those who would have stumped up for a copy  opt for a free e-book version instead. But nobody writes an academic monograph expecting to get rich! And there are reasons why I think it’ll be especially good to have this book available open access.

As paid services have an increasing place within the NHS, the value of knowing the history of payment in British hospitals is hardly restricted to ivory towers. There’s quite a lot of good stuff out there on pre-NHS healthcare, but nothing yet that actually explains how payment schemes actually worked within the hospital, why profit-making private provision was so limited, and what cultural meanings were associated with handing over money to previously ‘free’ healthcare providers. Open access means this book will be available at the simple click of a button to policymakers, journalists and anyone who cares about the NHS and where it’s headed.

So, for now, I’ll once again say: Thank you Uncle Henry! I’ll let you know where to send the cheque.

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