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

Br J Hist Sci. 2019 Sep;52(3):447-465. doi: 10.1017/S0007087419000232. Epub 2019 Jul 22.


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.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Anthracosis / diagnosis*
  • Coal Mining
  • Disabled Persons / statistics & numerical data*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Radiography / history*
  • Spirometry / history*
  • United Kingdom
  • X-Rays