Sunday 29 March 2020

1632. 🇬🇧 Coronavirus Letter In The Mail.

🇬🇧 Collectors of postal history in The United Kingdom will have an interesting item to add to their collections in the next few days - Downing Street, the office of the British prime minister - has announced that every household in the country (30 million of them) will receive a letter from Boris Johnson on the subject of the Coronavirus epidemic which urges the population to follow the measures laid down by the government to cut down social contact and thereby help the workers and resources of the National Health Service (NHS) cope with the vast numbers of severely sick and dying people which are expected to need to be treated in the coming weeks. Thirty million copies of the letter delivered by the postal system, presumably Royal Mail, will be sent out in the coming days. Historians may be interested in the letter but postal historians will be particularly interested in the envelope in which it is delivered particularly the cancellation applied to the letter (if there is one).

  Ian Billings, who of course publishes Norvic Philatelic Blog, has already highlighted in Stamp Boards a slogan postmark being applied to ordinary mail and it would be exceptionally interesting if Mr Johnson’s letter is delivered with such a cancellation applied to it. The postmark reads, in 5 lines,  “STAY HOME,/ PROTECT THE NHS,/ SAVE LIVES,/ Royal Mail - keeping/communities connected”.

Slogan postmark posted on Stamp boards by Norvic.

  In recent years Royal Mail has tended to prefer to commemorate veteran popular musicians and science fiction characters rather than the achievements of the NHS and its doctors, nurses, its other staff and medical scientists but a set of 4 stamps was released on 23 June 1998 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the National Health Service. The designs were rather disappointing but featured a few facts about the service at that time.

  Much more exciting stamps from Royal Mail on the theme of medicine were released on 2 March 1999 in its’Patients’ Tale’ set from its Millenium series which was designed by notable British artists. The designs featured fittingly ‘Jenner’s vaccination’ by P Brookes (20p), ‘Nursing Care’ by P Macfarlane (26p), ‘Fleming’s penicillin’ by M Dempsey (43p) and ‘Test tube baby’ by Anthony Gormley’.

  It is true one that one of the earliest commemorative issues released by the British postal service since the beginning of the 1960s was that which commemorated the Centenary of Dr Joseph Lister’s work on antiseptic surgery. He championed the use of carbolic acid to sterilise surgical instruments and to clean wounds and this led to a reduction in post-operative infections and deaths and earned him the sobriquet of ‘Father of modern surgery’. The pair of stamps was issued on 1 September 1965.

  There have been a few other notable medicine/nursing/health/medical science-related stamp issues released by the British postal service since then. The commemoration of nursing has been particularly centred on stamps featuring British nursing pioneers - Florence Nightingale, of course, and Mary Seacole.
 2020 is the Bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale and it says a lot about the values of the people who chose the subjects to be featured on Royal Mail Stamps that the organisation shamefully chose not to commemorate Nightingale this year but instead thought that there was more money to be made from issuing a stamp featuring the fictional Dr McCoy from the United States television programme Star Trek. Perhaps after all this is over the people responsible for choosing the subjects of British new Stamps will have a rethink and show that they do not, as Oscar Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere’s Fan, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Florence Nightingale, issued 1 April 1970

Mary Seacole, issued 18 July 2006.
  British contributions to medical science and technology have also been commemorated on stamps in the past. In recent years such philatelic commemorations have not been numerous in comparison with the number of stamps devoted to portraying popular culture but we may note the following:-

From the Inventive Britain set of 19 February 2015 - DNA sequencing and I-limb bionic hand.

From the Remarkable Lives set of 25 March 2015 - Max Perutz, molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate.

From the set commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of 25 February 2010 - Dorothy Hodgkin, Edward Jenner and Joseph Lister.

Medical Breakthroughs set of 16 September 2010 - Synthesis of Beta blockers by Sir James Black 1962,  Discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming, 1928, Total hip replacement surgery by Sir John Charnley 1962, Artificial lens implant surgery by Sir Harold Ridley 1949, Proof of mosquito transmission of malaria by Sir Ronald Ross 1897 and the CT scanner invented by Sir Geoffrey Hounsfield 1971.

  From the set commemorating Women of Distinction of 14 October 2008 - Marie Stopes Pioneer of family planning (50p) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson physician - the first woman to qualify to practice in medicine Britain in 1865 (48p).

  From the set commemorating the National Portrait Gallery of 18 July 2006 - Dame Cicely Saunders, physician who pioneered the care of the dying.

  Set commemorating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA of 25 February 2003 - Genome end of the beginning (2nd), Cracking the code (E), Comparative genetics (1st), Genetic engineering (47p), Medical futures (68p).

  From the set 20th Century Women of achievement of 6 August 1996 - Dorothy Hodgkin.

  Set commemorating British medical discoveries of 27 September 1994 - Ultasonic imaging (25p), Scanning electron microscopy (30p), Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (35p) and Computerised axial tomography (CT scanning)  (41p at head of this Blog).

  From the 150th anniversary of the Royal Microscopical Society ser of 5 September 1989 - Blood cells (32p).

    Set commemorating the Centenary of the Royal Institute of Chemistry of 2 March 1977 - Vitamin C synthesis by WN Haworth, Nobel Prize winner 1937 (10p), Conformational analysis of steroids by Sir Derek Barton, Nobel Prize winner 1969 (8.5p), Salt crystallography by WH and WL Bragg, Nobel Prize winners 1915 (13p) and Starch chromatography by Martin and Synge, Nobel Prize winners 1952 (11p).

From the British Discoveries set of 9 November 1967 - Penicillin, treatment discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming.

  I very much hope that Royal Mail will plan an issue to celebrate the work of all those whose efforts defeat this disaster that has hit not only Britain but the whole world. Perhaps stamps honouring the efforts and sacrifices of the people of Britain will be greatly appreciated by the country, more so, I think, than a set of Star Trek stamps which Royal Mail is currently planning to issue towards the enD of this tragic year which, I’m sure, will show the people of Britain at their best.

Addendum. 30 million letters. How did Boris Johnson manage to sign them all? No wonder he’s having to self-isolate for a week!

Addendum 2. And here’s another thought. Who were the poor people faced with stuffing 30 million letters in 30 million envelopes? Phew!

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