CHHS research seminar: Dr Coreen McGuire

Dr Coreen McGuire presented on ‘Unifying Partial Disability: The Medical Research Council and the Classification of Respiratory Disability in Britain’ on 25/04/18 in room G.63, 13 Woodland Road.

McGuire noted that during the first half of the twentieth century, the mining industry in Britain represented a site of contested medical knowledge, in which the risk to miners’ lungs from coal dust was disputed by various governmental, industrial, and medical bodies. Following the legal introduction of ‘partial disability’ in 1931, attempts to unify these bodies in standard interpretations of respiratory disability were promoted through the Medical Research Council’s medical surveys of the South Wales coalfields undertaken between 1936-1942. However, adjudicating disability was complex and involved creating new sets of standardised classifications for what measurable changes constituted disability in relation to respiratory disease. In her paper, McGuire considered how technology was used by the Medical Research Council in their attempt to create objective measurements of such respiratory disability changes. To combat the difficulty of measuring breathlessness and the impossibility of making direct measurements of lung capacity, the surrogate measurement of vital capacity was made using spirometers. The MRC used this measurement to numerically code breathlessness, which allowed them to scale, standardise, and adjudicate for levels of respiratory disability. Yet such efforts were permeated by disunity between miners’ subjective reports of breathlessness and the objective correlate. Analysing the creation of respiratory disability standards through vital capacity measurements reveals one of the myriad ways in which seemingly objective technology has been used to mask the political and social construction of disability. Moreover, this historical case study demonstrates that there is evidence of embedded epistemic injustice inherent to the processes of instrumental testing that social support and compensation necessitates.

Contact: Coreen McGuire –


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