Endless Possibilities of Rejuvenation: Defining Youth, Defying Ageing in Britain, 1919-1948

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of PRHS


Human beings have always worried about ageing, with special worry reserved for premature ageing. Consequently, we have tried numerous different methods to try and achieve rejuvenation - a state of renewed youth or the appearance of youth. The everyday methods with which we are perhaps most familiar - skin care products, dietary and exercise regimes - have long histories but were transformed in the decades following the First World War, when a wealth of scientific research and new anti-ageing products appeared to promise the ability to prolong youthfulness, fertility and vitality.

This Fellowship sets out to examine the impact of the most widespread methods of rejuvenation - injection and application of hormones, using electricity on the body, skincare products, specific diets and exercise regimes - on post-WWI Britain. We already know from previous historical work that the unique socio-political context of interwar Germany precipitated the rise of eugenic ideals about race and biology, as well as beauty and ugliness, whilst at the same time the rising consumer-culture context of the United States enthusiastically embraced technological and scientific developments linked to human ageing. However, Britain in this period has remained largely unstudied, and consequently we risk overstating the significance of developments elsewhere. Concerns about the overall fitness (and fertility) of the population were increased by Britain's participation in the two World Wars, and it is clear that the perceived need for rejuvenation of both individuals and society became a topic of intense debate both in medical and scientific circles and in the wider public sphere. Especially prior to the NHS, manufacturers and entrepreneurs attempted to exploit this fascination, and they claimed that a number of existing therapies had rejuvenating properties, as well as trying to introduce new devices and products. The domestication of electrical lighting and the increasingly wide reach of cinema and photography also placed added pressure on the British public, and particularly women, to look at their best. The Fellowship will explore why rejuvenation was such a prominent matter of public interest in this period, and it will show in what ways the methods used to slow, stop or even reverse ageing helped to define some of the most fundamental elements of what it means to be human.

The principal goals are to (i) explain the diversity of approaches to rejuvenation, (ii) examine the different advertising and marketing strategies and their relationship with contemporary scientific perspectives on ageing, and (iii) uncover how everyday habits were changed by anti-ageing products, procedures and lifestyles. Allied to this, the Fellowship will explain how manufacturers of rejuvenation preparations and devices attempted to convince British publics of the efficacy of their products, and show to what extent the target audiences of these products were persuaded by such claims. The Fellowship seeks to explain how and why this period in Britain became such a fruitful environment for different rejuvenation strategies. Drawing on a wide range of archival materials, including the papers of manufacturers and retailers of rejuvenation-related products (such as Boots, Pond's and Elizabeth Arden), newspaper and periodical sources, objects, specialist scientific and medical texts, personal accounts and fictional representations of rejuvenation, the project will link together histories of the body, ageing, the limits of biomedical explanation, everyday medical practice, the impact of global conflict on health and wellbeing, and the medical marketplace, amongst other themes. The Fellowship will consequently deepen our understanding of the historical body and the human condition by demonstrating that ageing and rejuvenation were intimately connected with a wide range of medial, social, cultural and economic factors, including beauty, gender, class, race, warfare, and eugenics.

Planned Impact

There are four distinct groups who will be the primary beneficiaries of this research.

1. Museum and heritage professionals

The postdoctoral Engagement Fellow (EF) will work closely with key staff at all three project partners - the National Trust, Thackray Medical Museum and Boots - to develop resources and exhibition materials to maximise the value of their collections and offer new interpretative strategies for their collections, particularly medical objects and collections regarded as 'fringe' or 'quack'. From these institutions Lucinda Heron (Operations Manager, Overbeck's), Joanne Bartholomew (Chief Executive, Thackray Medical Museum) and Sophie Clapp (Senior Archive and Records Manager, Boots) will meet regularly with the EF to ensure that their work feeds directly into their programmes of activity. All three will also attend the project conference (January 2018), ensuring that the three partners receive reciprocal benefits from working with one another. Broader impact will be guaranteed for the heritage community though the Thackray's leading role in the Medical Museum Subject Specialist Network and UK Medical Collections Group, the wider National Trust network of properties and Boots' involvement with the national Archives and Records Association.

2. Public audiences

My earlier research in this area has already generated substantial interest amongst public audiences through a variety of means. These have included a public panel debate for the British Science Festival (September 2015) on the subject 'Who Wants to Live Forever?' featuring biomedical scientists and social gerontologists alongside historians, and a major feature article in New Scientist magazine (16 February 2013). Through the work with the project partners, the EF will generate public-facing outputs based on Fellowship research. By accessing these new narratives about the history of rejuvenation in Britain public audiences will look with a more informed eye on current anti-ageing products and procedures such as cosmetic surgery, the place of these in society, and the types of claim made by manufacturers. They will also have an enhanced appreciation for the far-reaching influence of global conflict, scientific knowledge claims and commercial interests on seemingly unconnected everyday, domestic habits, enabling them to better reflect on their own experiences of ageing and youthfulness.

3. Commercial medical companies

One of the key areas of focus of the Fellowship is advertising and product development. By examining numerous collections of historic advertising, as well as first-hand accounts of using rejuvenating products and methods, the research will offer new insights into the habits of consumers, and in particular their engagement with advertising and marketing strategies. There is therefore significant potential for this Fellowship to provide important evidence about the changing patterns of consumer culture and the different ways in which social groups were persuaded by advertising which made appeals to scientific authority.

4. Healthcare professionals and policymakers

The emergence of regenerative medicine as a major area of biomedical endeavour has the potential to radically alter medical practice. This Fellowship will examine how the immediate aftermath of the First World War became such a fruitful ground for new regenerating therapies. By identifying the role of the scientific and medical communities in shaping and responding to these new (and reconfigured) treatments, the Fellowship will provide an important historical case study in the relationship between everyday domestic practices and professional medical activity. Professional bodies such as the British College of Aesthetic Medicine might therefore benefit from a clearer understanding of the longer-term origins of public desire to maintain a youthful appearance.


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Description The project has provided the first complete academic history of rejuvenation in modern Britain. Through a series of publications, including a major book - The Cult of Youth - published by Cambridge University Press in March 2020, the project has traced the development of the key features of modern anti-ageing, highlighting the critical role of World War One, the Great Depression, and claims of scientific innovation and novelty in driving the consumer revolution in rejuvenating products and procedures. This represents a major contribution to our understanding of how ageing came to be regarded as a negative experience, and why manufacturers constructed a marketplace for their products.
Exploitation Route The scope of this study has been restricted to the first half of the twentieth century, and to the context of Britain in its relationship with Europe and North America. Subsequent work might explore how divergent cultural traditions, such as those found in South Asia, Africa, and South America, experienced attempts to mitigate the effects of the ageing process, and the social significance of these. Additionally, we might look to other areas of British social and cultural life, such as sport and performance, to find out more about how ageing was conceptualised and experienced. The involvement of medical science in many of the strategies used to try and rejuvenate men and women in the early twentieth century also shows the power of scientific authority in constructing these debates. Consequently, the project might also inspire efforts to examine how present-day claims about the effects of skin care products and medical procedures on older bodies are marketed and consumed.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

URL https://medregen.leeds.ac.uk/
Description The research underpinned exhibitions and talks which highlighted a novel and important understanding about how ageing was viewed in the past. Through a temporary exhibition at the Thackray Museum of Medicine in 2018, for example, audiences were introduced for the first time to the myriad ways in which men and women attempted to restore the appearance of youthfulness in the early twentieth century, reflecting on the centrality of anti-ageing in the present. Two major pieces in The Conversation also opened up the research to wider audiences, supporting their critical perspective on manufacturers' claims about the rejuvenating properties of their devices and preparations.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Retail
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Eating yourself young: diet, recipe, and vitality before nutrition science
Amount £9,994 (GBP)
Funding ID DRH18\180010 
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2018 
End 10/2019
Description Boots Company Archive 
Organisation Boots UK
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Providing wider context to the collections at the Boots Company Archive, including updating catalogue records and writing online research guides to accompany the collections. I have also been involved in the Advisory Board for Boots' Wellcome Trust Research Resources Award, shaping the direction of the project, publicising the digitised records and determining the priorities for the Boots Company Archive.
Collaborator Contribution Access to archival materials and knowledge of the material culture of rejuvenation. In addition, archival staff at Boots have identified relevant materials for a possible exhibition, to be hosted at Boots Head Office.
Impact N/A
Start Year 2016
Description National Trust - Overbeck's 
Organisation National Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Advice and participation in rationalising, reinterpreting and re-presenting archival collections.
Collaborator Contribution TBC
Impact TBC
Start Year 2016
Description Thackray Medical Museum 
Organisation Thackray Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Assisting with development of collections and interpretation strategy. We are also currently working towards the staging of a temporary exhibition on the history of rejuvenation, drawing on our research.
Collaborator Contribution Enabling access to collections and providing expertise concerned primary source materials and objects. The Thackray have also worked with us developing exhibition text and images, as well as identifying relevant audiences and objects in their collections.
Impact N/A
Start Year 2016
Description Exhibition (Thackray Medical Museum) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Rejuvenation Emporium was an exhibition which ran for two months and explored the lively and surprising histories of ageing and the pursuit of youth, including stories of doctors, quacks, fiction writers, and Hollywood film stars during the 1920s rejuvenation craze. This new exhibition, co-curated by the Thackray Medical Museum and members of the research project includeD objects, stories, interactive exhibits, and a special archival silent film screening of the 1923 Hollywood film "Black Oxen", starring screen stars Corinne Griffith and Clara Bow. It was designed to both showcase objects in the Thackray's collection and demonstrate the relationship between historical and present-day approaches to rejuvenation and anti-ageing. We received a large number of completed feedback forms, as well as many post-it notes on our "how do YOU rejuvenate?" interactive.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.thackraymedicalmuseum.co.uk/events/the-rejuvenation-emporium/
Description Lecture to Warrington Literary & Philosophical Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A lecture to the Warrington Literary and Philosophical society, with discussion session afterwards. It introduced the history of anti-ageing across a broad historical span, and I received very positive feedback from attendees, and a very engaged question and answer session.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.warringtonlitandphil.org.uk/previous-meetings
Description Public Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Around 90 attendees came to a public lecture "The Rejuvenation Emporium" and an associated pop-up exhibition which we staged as part of the Being Human Festival. We received very positive feedback on the event from our evaluation questionnaires and the lecture was subsequently uploaded to YouTube (see URL below). The lecture was jointly promoted with the innovative History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects Lecture Series, and the main impacts were an increased public awareness and understanding of the historical roots of electrotherapy, hormone treatments and skin care, as well as an engagement with the material culture of science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/20objects/object-19-magneto-electric-machine/
Description Talk to U3A Branch (Bury) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Around 25 members of the Bury (Greater Manchester) branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) attended a lecture as part of their "Today's World" series. The topic was the history of rejuvenation and anti-ageing, and the lecture sparked a lengthy debate about the ethics/desirability of life extension and the different relationships which younger and older people have with mortality and illness. The organisers noted afterwards that it was one of the most engaging events which they had staged, and confirmed this in a follow-up email of thanks, highlighting the fact that the conversations continued into the following week.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017