Tag Archives: History of Medicine

Death and Illness in the Archive

Recently I catalogued an interesting, rather sad, file that reminded me of the privilege we have of living in the age of antibiotics. Amongst Dimitrije Mitrinović’s more personal papers is a file of letters from friends and family, many of which relate to the deaths of his brothers Milivoje and Ljubivoje, as well as his niece Lilija, all within a few years of each other.

NAF 1-8-7 Ljubivoj Mitrinovic, Obit 1931

Announcement of the death of Ljubivoje Mitrinović.

Milivoje Mitrinović had followed his brother to Britain, and was studying Journalism at the University of London when he died, seemingly of tuberculosis. Letters from English correspondents show that he was well-liked in his new home and had clearly made an impression on Dimitrije Mitrinović’s friends.

Ljubivoje (known as Ljubo) died in Belgrade in 1931, nursed by his sister, Vera Mitrinović. By this time Dimitrije Mitrinović’s friend, the travel writer and novelist Stephen Graham, was living in Yugoslavia and had fallen in love with Vera. A moving letter written in the difficult time before Ljubo’s death documents their relationship. In the letter, dated January 1930, Graham appeals to Dimitrije Mitrinović to help Vera. Graham feared that her studies were suffering under the burden of caring for Ljubo. He worried about her finding herself in a situation where she would have to deal with Ljubo’s body by herself, as he looked likely to die in the one room flat they shared. Most serious of all, Graham feared for Vera’s health. How could she avoid catching tuberculosis, living so closely with her infected brother? Efforts to give Ljubo money to pay rent on a second room had gone awry and Graham asks Dimitrije Mitrinović to advise his siblings.

NAF 1-8-7-31 Letter from Stephen Graham 26-01-1930, p.3 Excerpt 3    NAF 1-8-7-31 Letter from Stephen Graham 26-01-1930 Excerpt 2

After Ljubivoje Mitrinović’s death, Vera still seems to have borne the brunt of the burden on the family. According to another letter from Graham, she paid for the funeral expenses herself. However, I don’t think Dimitrije Mitrinović should be seen as a cruel or miserly brother in all this. The archive also contains evidence of him sending money to Vera and trying to get back to Yugoslavia to visit. Graham’s pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears!

It is certainly easy to get drawn into the personal tragedies and dramas of these letters, but it also struck me that there might be some interest in letters of condolence as a “genre”. They are a way of exploring how we mark death, and the type of language or ideas we use to try to comfort the living or express grief. Those in the Mitrinović Archive might be particularly interesting, as so many of those writing them had studied psychology, religion and philosophy, which might have shaped their responses to illness and death.

NAF 1-8-7-31 Letter from Stephen Graham 26-01-1930, envelope

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Mens Sana in Corpore Sano: Mind & Body in the Mitrinović Collection

This week I wanted to explore the place that physical activity has in the Mitrinović collection. It is hard, looking at photos of Dimitrije Mitrinović and knowing that he frequently suffered from ill health, to imagine him actually doing any exercise but he does seem to have had an interest in it. His close collaborator Valerie Cooper ran a dance and movement studio, and some members of Mitrinović’s circle seem to have taken instruction in dance and exercise from her.

NAF 1-7-2-2-2 Cooper-Gaffran School of Movement, Director bios

The Mitrinović Archive holds a copy of a booklet advertising the Cooper-Gaffran School of Movement, in which the Directors outline their philosophy. They state their belief that “Owing to the physical and mental strain imposed upon them by the conditions of modern civilisation, most human beings have lost the feeling for rhythmic and harmonious movement […].” The aim of the School was to “prevent and cure postural defects and the many diseases arising from them, and give the ability to carry the body with ease and grace […].” “Correct movement” would stop the waste of “nervous energy”, help preserve “youthful vigour” and flexibility.

Cooper also promoted her philosophy beyond the school, publishing a series of articles in the New Britain magazine in the 1930s in which she coached readers. A series of marvelous photos were taken to illustrate the series, which ran under the title ‘The New Exercise’, in keeping with the spirit of change that was core to the New Britain Movement.

 

NAF 5-4-9 Woman Exercising, New Britain 1933, Kneeling pose

NAF 5-4-9 Woman Exercising, New Britain 1933, diving pose

However much New Britain promoted and sought change, its founder Dimtrije Mitrinović was also always looking backwards as well as forwards, seeking out the wisdom of the past and of traditional practices from around the world. In keeping with his interest in Eastern philosophies, religions and spiritual practices, Mitrinović studied yoga – at least in an academic sense. This pamphlet, which turned up unexpectedly in the archive, was printed in 1930 to advertise a new journal focusing on the philosophy and practice of yoga.

NAF 1-7-2-9-1 Yoga Journal, pamphlet 1930

We think of yoga as reaching the West only really in the 1960s, but Mitrinović’s Archive and Library show that certainly by the 1920s these Eastern practices and beliefs were being studied in London, Germany and even Belgrade.

The idea of healthy mind, healthy body has ancient roots, as our Latin quote suggests. In principle at least, it appealed to Mitrinović – although other evidence in the archive shows he certainly wasn’t willing to give up whisky and soda or smoking his pipe to get there!

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