"…in the past, knowledge of first aid meant people were more able to manage their own accidents and illnesses and therefore less dependent on their GPs…"
A widespread knowledge of first aid once equipped millions of people to tackle emergencies ranging from a cut finger to a life-threatening seizure. Could a revival of these skills help reduce pressure on doctors' surgeries and NHS casualty departments?
This is one of the issues to be probed by a £250,000 research project in which Barry Doyle, the University of Huddersfield's Professor of Health History, is playing a key role. He will act as mentor to Dr Rosemary Wall, Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull. A specialist in the history of nursing, she originated the project and has been awarded an early career grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
In addition to his mentoring, Professor Doyle will also conduct research in France, gauging whether its contribution-based health system has resulted in greater knowledge of first aid among the population. Faced with paying a fifth of the costs of their healthcare, are the French more self-reliant?
The research project is titled Crossing Boundaries: the History of First Aid in Britain and France, 1909-1989. In addition to the historical dimension - intended to lead to articles and a book - there will also be discussion sessions with doctors, to discover if the lessons learned about first aid in the past could have present-day policy implications.
"This is one of the factors that stimulated the project," said Professor Doyle. "There is a something of a crisis in the NHS around people trying to see their GP. This set us wondering if in the past, knowledge of first aid meant people were more able to manage their own accidents and illnesses and therefore less dependent on their GPs.
"So we will do historical research on a wide range of examples of first aid across the 20th century, but then we will get together with some current medical practitioners and first aiders to see what they can learn from this and what we can learn from them."
The timescale of Crossing Boundaries starts in 1909, when Voluntary Aid Detachments - including auxiliary nurses - were established by the British Red Cross. A major focus for the research will be the first aid activity and the knowledge diffusion conducted by the British Red Cross and organisations such as St John's Ambulance.
The project will conclude with an examination of the influence of the Cold War. Did its close lead to the curtailment of first aid skills in the UK?
"Preparations for war - real and cold - often stimulated first aid knowledge and education," said Professor Doyle. "The reduction of that threat after 1989 made these things potentially less relevant to society."
Dr Wall and Professor Doyle will soon be appointing a research fellow to take part in the Crossing Boundaries project, which has now been launched and concludes in August 2018.
· Teresa Pearce, the Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead, has recently attempted to introduce legislation designed to give every child in state-funded secondary schools the opportunity to learn emergency first aid skills. Her Private Member's Bill was not adopted, but Ms Pearce says she will continue to campaign on the subject "because I believe that every child has the untapped potential to save a life and I was shocked to learn just how few children are currently being taught vital lifesaving skills. Less than a quarter of schools teach their pupils first aid."