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Abstract Time

March 3, 2015

Image of Great War Graves

It’s that time of year again. Abstract time. This year I’m (hoping) to go the Australian Historical Association Conference, conveniently being held at Sydney University, and the Australian and New Zealand Society for the History of Medicine Conference, being held the following week at ACU North Sydney.

This is what I’ve submitted:

From the Medical to the Social: “Rejected Volunteers,” Disablement, and Voluntarism during Australia’s Great War

During the Great War, the systematic medical inspection of civilians created a hitherto unimagined problem: a large proportion of young Australian men were unfit. Inspectors revealed a suite of problems such as poor vision, irregular heartbeats, poor lung capacity and varicocele. Many of the volunteers didn’t even know they were unfit until they’d been inspected.

There has been a great deal of international research on the process of medical inspection (both physical and mental) during and after the war. Less attention has been paid to the lives of volunteers who had been rejected. Recently, Nic Clarke has published a suite of articles examining the intersection of medical inspection and vernacular understandings of masculinity in the British Empire. He argues that disabilities were created through the process of medical inspection, and that men only became cognisant of these disabilities through their rejection.

In this paper, I build upon Nic’s work, and undertake a longer term examination of Australia’s rejected volunteers. I argue that the rejects, now aware of their unfitness, adopted a diverse range of strategies to manage their new social position. Some killed themselves. Others hid or corrected their disabilities and successful enrolled at a later date. Quite a few formed groups such as the Sydney and Adelaide Rejected Volunteers Associations. Those organisations did things like mint badges that members could wear to demonstrate to passers-by that they were unfit, lobby the Federal Government to produce official Medically Unfit badges (there had been a problem with fit men fraudulently obtaining Rejected Volunteer badges), and participate in voluntary programmes such as veteran housing schemes, sock drives, and so on.

Ultimately, I examine how a medical problem transformed into a far broader social concern.

Where on Earth Do We Start?

Everyone wants us to do bigger, wider, and longer histories. In the last couple of decades we’ve discovered transnational history, imperial history, global history, world history, big data, histories of time, et cetera, et cetera. Most recently, Jo Guildi and David Armitage have published a “History Manifesto,” claiming (wrongly) that academic histories have become too narrow in scope, and thus less useful to society.

So where do we start? There are different strategies. It’s become a bit of cliché to start survey courses in Australian history around 50,000 BCE, as a gesture towards Australia’s first inhabitants. Dispensed with in a lecture or two, we can move on to colonisation. For over a century, medical historians have prefaced their histories with long and wide-ranging surveys, usually starting with Hippocrates, of whatever disease or disorder they’re studying. At Sydney University in the 1950s and 60s, one Professor of Australian History kept undergraduates enthralled with tales of eighteenth century British political intrigue. If the First Fleet left Portsmouth before the end of semester one, he was said to be on a roll. Money was lost at Manning betting on that.

In this paper, I use my own research to reflect on these questions.

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