The first witness seminar to be held in Denmark (at least to my knowledge!) was held last week at the Panum Institute. Nine Danish medical doctors, either retired or in the final years of their career, gathered to discuss the historical development of the therapeutic procedure that had been central to their professional activities, and which they had all made significant contributions to, namely kidney transplantations. Most of the witness began their carees in the mid-1960s and were therefore able to provide information on the entire period of kidney transplantations in Denmark, thus offering a unique source of knowledge.
There were several purposes of the seminar. The history of kidney transplantations is one area researched as part of the “Danish Biomedicine”-project at the Medical Museion. As responsible for that part of the project, and as organizer of the witness seminar, I hoped that the seminar would provide me with new insights and new information regarding developments in Denmark. I had interviewed all of the invited witnesses at earlier occasions, either face-to-face or over the phone, but I hoped that bringing them together in one room might lead to more specific questions and, possibly, crystallize opposing views among the witnesses that I had not been able to pick up on in individual interviews. (Is discontinuity a hallmark of academically qualified history of medicine?)
The seminar was also arranged as an excercise in aquisition. The personal recollections and experiences of historical actors is rarely conveyed in writing, and therefore often escapes archives and museum collections. A witness seminar seemed to offer an opportunity to capture the memories of doctors who had been involved in a particular field and preserve them for purposes of research or even exhibition.
Most of all, however, the seminar was an experiment and a test of a kind of activity that presents itself as a unique opportunity for those working with contemporary history and therefore something that the “Danish Biomedicine”-project could include as an integrated part. The witnesses were all informed of the experimental nature of the meeting, but apart from a few persons, everyone that I asked agreed to participate.
Further evaluation of the outcome of the meeting has to be done, but some lessons have definitely been learned. The seminar was a success in the way that all of the invited witnesses were happy to relate their view of the history of kidney transplantations, and were willing to engage in a discussion of the subjects that had been announced beforehand. Yet from the point of view of research, the four-hour meeting did not bring about information that had not already been related to me through individual interviews. Also, the witnesses were either unable to find points where they disagreed on the sequence of events or the rationality of past decisions, or unwilling to engage into such a discussion. Of course, it is very stimulating to spend an entire afternoon discussing my research subject with the people I am actually writing about. But as a research tool, I am not sure the meeting really merited the time I had put into organizing it. Discussions took place in a very pleasant atmosphere and the whole event certainly strengthened my access to that particular group of people, something that I may benefit from in later research. But actually arranging the meeting was more time consuming than I had thought, and I might have been able to spend that time in a more productive way.
From the point of view of aquisitions, I think there is more to be gained. Without a doubt, many historians would kill for a four-hour video recording of just some of the historical actors relevant to their area of research, even though the questions asked today will be different from those asked in the future. There is always a question of technical finess, and the recordings made at the meeting could have been more clear. But in principle, there is a rich source for museum collections here. The problem is obviously that it takes time and knowledge of the subject in question in order to perform a witness seminar that manages to penetrate beyond the merely trivial, and that, i think, provides a bottleneck that is not easily overcome. The series of witness seminars that are held by the Twentieth Century Medicine-group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL requires a machinery that few institutions will be able to run.
Still, on the basis of the experiences gained, it is possible that there are purposes to witness seminars that were not pursued through the way I organized this particular meeting. I had tried to keep the number of spectators to a minimum (and here, I succeeded!) in order to encourage the witnesses to speak freely. Yet perhaps, having the same group of people gathered in a large auditorium with a large audience might prove an effective way to reach out to people not ordinarily concerned with the history of medicine. In my opinion, we should try to have such a seminar, yet on another subject. By taking a completely different approach to the one I chose, we will be able to determine the possible gains of this kind of activity.