Crossing Boundaries: The History of First Aid in Britain and France, 1909-1989



Dr Rosemary Wall, Lecturer in Global History, Department of History, University of Hull, has been awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Early-Career Grant of £200,000, with co-investigator and mentor, Professor Barry Doyle, Centre for Health Histories, University of Huddersfield.

First aid is a broad term encompassing activities from applying a sticking plaster, to preparing for and managing the effects of war. In this new study Wall and Doyle will focus on the initial treatment of minor injuries and techniques for basic life support undertaken by people other than recognized medical professionals. The project begins in 1909, when Voluntary Aid Detachments (including auxiliary nurses) were established by the British Red Cross, and ends by examining the influence of the Cold War on our knowledge of first aid. A major focus for the research will be the first aid activity and the diffusion of first aid knowledge conducted by the British Red Cross and other organisations such as St John’s Ambulance.

They will test the typicality of the British experience by examining of the development of first aid in France. French healthcare and voluntary associations developed in different ways to those in England. There has, for example, been a more prominent, and controversial, role for religious organisations, a greater level of state intervention in the oversight of first aid providers and a set of priorities strongly influenced by the experience of war and invasion. Moreover, the centrality of contributory insurance and the freedom of doctors from state employment may have shaped the continuing role of first aid within the French system.

Wall and Doyle’s project will move beyond professional, institutional care to focus on the history of the personal, voluntary and communitarian forms of healthcare generally known as first aid. They feel that an understanding of the trajectory of non-institutional treatment across the twentieth century, and in particular the effect of freely available universal health provision on the willingness of the public to self-treat minor injuries, can help to illuminate the boundaries of state provision, individual responsibility and voluntary action in the era of welfare states. Moreover, tracing the fate of first aid provides an opportunity to inform responses to the current crisis in the British National Health Service, especially recent heavy demands on GP surgeries and accident and emergency departments.

The grant begins on 1 March 2016 and runs to 31 August 2018. Wall and Doyle will shortly be recruiting a post-doctoral researcher to assist with the project, who will particularly focus on the research which will be undertaken in France and on oral history. As well as writing publications, the team will be working on a variety of policy and public engagement activities.

Story originally published on


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