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Alexander Medcalf
Lecturer in the History of Science and Medicine International Officer

Profile

Biography

BA, MA, PhD (York)

Alexander is a historian of visual culture, specialising in public health and medicine, marketing, and transport in the twentieth century, with a particular interest in the history of photography. His research works at the intersections between medicine, photography, mass media, and advertising. He is currently examining the eclectic negotiations which influenced how health matters and products were marketed to the public.

From 2012-2016 Alexander was the Centre for Global Health Histories' Outreach Historian, and from 2016-2019 was the Centre’s Deputy Director. One of Alexander’s duties as part of this role was to co-edit a series of public/policy engagement-oriented books relating to the annual World Health Organisation/Global Health Histories seminars and the 'Local Bases of Global Health'. These books include ‘Leprosy: A Short History’ (2016), ‘Tropical Diseases: Lessons from History’ (2014), and ‘Tuberculosis: A Short History’ (2013). All of these books are available open access, with further information available via publications outreach.

Alexander’s 2018 monograph Railway Photographic Advertising in Britain, 1900-1939 (part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media series) has been described as providing a “framework of understanding railway marketing’s development, and orientates our view away from the pictorial poster as a subject of analysis. Medcalf has therefore produced a text which undoubtedly be of interest to all scholars of British railways’ business history, and which will resonate with marketing historians generally” (David Turner, Business History, 2019).

Research

Overview

Alexander’s research explores the far-reaching role played by photographers and photography in influencing popular attitudes and ideologies. His latest work has examined how photographers shaped ideas of health and humanitarianism across the second half of the twentieth century, how they helped to foster attention and understanding across geographical, cultural, and linguistic barriers.

Alexander has recently finished working on a Wellcome Trust Seed Award interdisciplinary project ‘Community health workers in Brazil and the global movement for universal health coverage’ with Dr João Nunes (Department of Politics). Together, Medcalf and Nunes used the case of community health workers (CHWs) as an entry-point into an investigation of past and present obstacles to, as well as existing potential for, the implementation of universal health coverage. Dr Medcalf focused in particular on how CHWs were represented by the World Health Organization (WHO) through film and photographs in the run up to Alma Ata and afterwards. More information is available at Seed Project Award

This followed another interdisciplinary project, ‘Chronic diseases through the lens’, run with Professor Karl Atkin (Health Sciences). The drive to direct more attention at chronic diseases has a long history, and there is a pressing need to know more about how campaigns were structured and initiatives advocated in the past. This research project sought to uncover part of this history by focusing on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) photographic archive. Taking different chronic conditions in turn, the project explored the measures taken to conceptualise, photograph and publicise them as part of advocacy efforts, and the attendant shifts over time. More information is available at Chronic diseases through the lens.

Alexander’s earlier work focused on how photographers commodified place and travel in the first half of the twentieth century. Alex’s work shows how photographers did more than simply picture place: they engaged customers’ anxieties about the disappearance of traditional landscapes and local values; the modernisation of culture and business operations; the changing role of female consumers; and habits of moving and consuming travel, influencing how millions viewed themselves and the world around them. In 2012, Alexander completed his PhD, which has now been published by Palgrave Macmillan as Railway Photographic Advertising in Britain, 1900-1939 (part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media). This research formed part of the wider AHRC-funded project, 'The Commercial Cultures of Britain's Railways, 1872-1977'. His thesis used photographic sources to examine emerging corporate cultures within the GWR, and found that this company was fully conversant in a range of marketing techniques including customer research, market segmentation and aspirational advertising. 

Teaching

Undergraduate

  • From Grave Robbers to Gene Therapy: the Rise of Modern Medicine (second year Histories and Contexts module)

Postgraduate

  • Convenor – MA in Medical History and Humanities

  • A Picture of Health: The Mass Media and Public Health in the Twentieth Century (MA Option)
  • Oral History Methods (MA Skills module)

Publications

Selected publications

  • with West, Bowyer et al., ‘Using a co-created transdisciplinary approach to explore the complexity of air pollution in informal settlements’, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 8, 285 (2021).
  • with Sanjoy Bhattacharya and Aliko Ahmed, ‘Humanities, Criticality and Transparency: Global Health Histories and the foundations of inter-sectoral partnerships for the democratisation of knowledge’, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 7, 6 (2020).
  • ‘Between Art and Information: Communicating World Health, 1948-1970’, Journal of Global History 13, 1 (2018), 94-120.
  • with Joao Nunes, 'Visualising primary health care: World Health Organization representations of community health workers, 1970-1989’ Medical History 62, 4 (2018).
  • 'Railway Photographic Advertising In Britain, 1900-1939' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
  • ‘Rethinking Edwardian Advertising: The Case of Britain’s Railways’, in Naomi Carle, Samuel Shaw & Sarah Shaw (eds.), Edwardian Culture: Beyond the Garden Party (Routledge, 2018).
  • with Saavedra, Sa & Bhattacharya, Leprosy: A Short History (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2016).
  • with Saavedra, Momen, Jones & Bhattacharya, Health for all: The Journey to Universal Health Coverage (New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015).
  • with Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Tropical Diseases: Lessons from History. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2014.
  • with Sanjoy Bhattacharya, Henrice Altink and Monica Saavedra, Tuberculosis: A Short History. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2013.
  • '"What to Wear and Where to Go": Picturing the Modern Consumer on the Great Western Railway, 1921-1939'. In Trains, Culture, and Mobility: Riding the Rails: Volume 2, edited by Benjamin Fraser and Steven Spalding. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.
  • '"We are Always Learning": Marketing the Great Western Railway, 1921-1939'. Journal of Transport History. December, 2012.

Contact details

Dr Alexander Medcalf
History
University of York
V/A/210
York
YO10 5DD

Student hours

Semester 2 2023/4