Museums are full of stories. They are told through collection objects, photographs, and documentary records. Some stories tell of innovation and past glories; some relate to hardship and deprivation; and some reflect the humour and warmth of people long gone. With the happier stories, it is easy to lapse into nostalgic visions of a simpler past as a balm for the heartaches and struggles of the present day. In at least one arena, that nostalgia would be misplaced: medicine.
The Museum recently digitised two Undertaker’s Indexes, which are available in full and for free on Coffs Collections. These indexes are lists compiled by members of the Coffs Harbour & District Historical Society from the records of local undertakers. They list the names, dates of death and ages at death of people in the local area. The entries often include biographical details such as names of parents or partner’s name, occupations, cause of death and the attending doctor. They are a fantastic family history resource, and often show how far we’ve come in treating injuries and illness that were fatal in earlier eras.
When processing the photographs of the Undertaker’s Indexes, one young man’s story caught our eye. His name was Alfred Garland, and he died by suicide when he was 25 years old. Two articles were published in the Coffs Harbour Advocate that can give us clues as to what happened to Alfred. The first was published in 1931, and recounts an incident involving Alfred’s admittance to hospital. At the time he was suffering from amnesia, and became violent. The article also mentions that Alfred was known to violently shake his head and had regular seizures that resulted in memory loss. It also notes a possible cause – when Alfred was younger, he was kicked in the head by a horse.
If this happened to Alfred today, what he suffered from may have been given a name: acquired brain injury. All of Alfred’s symptoms are outlined by the Brain Foundation’s description of ABI. If this had happened today, he would have access to support groups and organisations that advocated for him and funded research into better treatments. He might have had access to medicines to help control his symptoms, or therapies to help him cope with everyday life.
Learning about history can make us feel nostalgic for what we interpret to be happier and simpler times. It is also a reason to reflect and feel grateful for the things we have now that our ancestors did not.
If this article has raised any issues for you, please contact:
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For more information on Acquired Brain Injury, please contact: