Bernard Nicholls’ testimony provides a vivid and unsettling insight into scientific and medical perceptions of the homeless body during the Second World War. This body – often emaciated, infested, and in a state of decay – was viewed by many researchers with equal parts visceral disgust and scientific curiosity. If, as Sara Ahmed has argued, intimate and emotionally-charged interactions between bodies can produce feelings of either fellowship or otherness, it seems that wartime meetings between entomological researchers and homeless individuals were capable of both simultaneously, with ambiguous consequences for contemporary discussions about poverty, sympathy, and citizenship on the British home front.
In the summer of 1940, under the arches of Hungerford Bridge in London, Nicholls stumbled across “a prize specimen”. Nicolls, a pacifist and conscientious objector, had recently established an air raid shelter underneath the bridge to cater for rough sleepers, alcoholics, and other ‘misfits’ who found themselves barred from conventional sites of refuge. However, within weeks of the shelter’s opening, it became clear to Nicholls and his team of volunteers that the shelter’s patrons required more than just hot meals, clean beds, and protection from falling bombs; many needed urgent medical attention. Most pressingly of all, the bodies and clothing of shelterers were often found to be riddled with lice and other parasites after months spent sleeping on street corners and in overcrowded relief centres.
It was this particular hygienic challenge that first brought the Hungerford Bridge refuge to the attention of Patrick Alfred Buxton, Director of the Department of Entomology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Since December 1939, Buxton’s team of researchers had been conducting laboratory trials of new chemical insecticides designed to prevent infestation among both military and civilian populations during the war. As this work required a steady supply of parasites for testing purposes, Buxton reached out to local medical officers, lodging houses, and charitable organisations to request that they pass on any infectious materials confiscated from their impoverished charges. By virtue of his daily interactions with some of the city’s most desperate homeless communities, Nicholls quickly became a valued contact for this task.
Buxton’s experimental needs were at the forefront of Nicholls’ mind that summer night when he encountered, slumped against the wall of a nearby block of flats, “the most lousy person that had ever been known to exist”. After rushing him to the casualty department of St Stephen’s Hospital in Chelsea, Nicholls recalled,
the male orderly got a can of disinfectant and ran a ring all the way round this man… And I said, ‘look, if we undertake to undress him, and if you’ll give us a bag, we’ll stand within this circle of disinfectant and take off all of his clothing… Will you take him on from there?’ When we got down to the man’s naked skin, I was absolutely horrified… All the outside skin, on this man’s back particularly, had gone and the whole of his back from his neck to his buttocks was just a wet, pussy mass.
While the hospital’s staff were less than enthusiastic about the man’s arrival, researchers at LSHTM had a very different reaction. “They were terribly pleased,” Nicholls noted. “They meticulously went over every inch of that man’s clothing and picked off the dead lice… My recollection was that their count was over 15,000.”
Not all of Buxton’s interactions with the homeless were mediated by volunteers such as Nicholls. Since the spring of 1940, Buxton had also been directly recruiting “infested tramps” from the local area to participate in field trials of the most promising insecticides. On their arrival at LSHTM, these subjects were first asked to remove their clothing to allow for exact counts of lice on their bodies and clothing to be made. Their shirts, vests, and undergarments were then treated with a thin film of insecticide and the men were directed to wear this newly impregnated clothing at all times without washing. The subjects were to return to the laboratory three times a week for follow-up examinations, where the numbers of dead and surviving lice would be counted to evaluate the chemical’s efficacy. To ensure the men attended these examinations, Buxton’s team paid each subject five shillings per visit – around £12.50 in today’s money.
To understand the broader relevance of Buxton’s experiment, it is first necessary to consider some of the connections drawn between citizenship, labour, and homelessness in wartime Britain. Broadly speaking, two discourses vied for dominance during this period. On the one hand, charitable organisations frequently promoted a vision of the homeless individual as a potentially productive citizen who might be redeemed through the discipline of physical labour. Accordingly, the fundraising literature of groups such as the SOS Society and the Homeless Poor Society was often filled with testimonies from men transformed from maligned vagrants into successful pilots, accountants, and engineers, all through the power of hard work and physical exertion. In many ways, this faith in the redemptive power of labour was already well-entrenched in state-funded systems of poor relief such as the casual wards, where individual acts of digging, wood-cutting, and stone-breaking could be traded for a night’s shelter and sustenance.
However, this perspective was increasingly out of step with the more punitive approaches towards homelessness taken by government departments and local authorities as war loomed. This was particularly the case in London, where the policies of London County Council constructed chronic homelessness as an active choice based on an aversion for hard work and traditional values, rather than the product of urban poverty. While one might expect that a softening of this attitude following the Blitz, where the indiscriminate nature of bombing appeared to sever any simplistic connection between homelessness and moral culpability, these views if anything hardened to distinguish the innocently disposed from the purposefully impoverished. In 1943, for example, the Ministry of Health openly declared war on Britain’s long-term homeless, vowing “to eradicate the hard core of veterans who stubbornly refuse to give up their aimless wandering.”
By positioning Buxton’s experiments against the backdrop of these wider debates about homelessness, it is possible to gauge their ambiguous potential. On the one hand, the insecticide trials provided homeless subjects with an opportunity to render unpleasant but socially useful acts of labour in service to the wider community; on the other hand, the experiments underscored their outsider status by focusing on their unsanitary and transgressive living conditions. Ultimately, Buxton’s reports tended towards the latter, presenting the participation of his homeless subjects in such a way as to place them outside the boundaries of acceptable wartime citizenship. Firstly, Buxton downplayed any sense of heroism by consistently denying that the experiments involved physical risk or discomfort. This was despite a latter admission that the chemicals could react painfully with the skin upon sweating, something which seemed inevitable considering that his subjects were living on the street during the “unusually warm” summer of 1940.
This denial of pain was accompanied by efforts to throw doubt upon the abilities of homeless subjects to accurately and honestly report their own bodily experiences. Indeed, this distrust was built into the experimental protocols themselves; subjects’ underclothing was covertly marked with a blue dye to ensure that they were not secretly washing off the chemicals between examinations. Furthermore, Buxton would later order for certain sets of results to be abandoned as he believed that “trafficking in lice has taken place because the men are unwilling to be freed of lice, and then discharged.” By portraying the men as dishonest, self-serving, and purely motivated by money, Buxton’s reports seemingly stripped the participation of homeless subjects of any social, moral, or civic worth. As such, by the time Buxton began discharging subjects towards the end of the summer, there was little sign that the men had ever been perceived by researchers as more than bodies for ‘hire’.
The LSHTM insecticide experiments reveal the complex and contradictory ways in which the homeless body was valued by medical researchers during the Second World War. For those tasked with safeguarding the health of Britain’s military and civilian populations, the infested and vulnerable individuals who populated their nearby street corners and alleyways were at once socially abhorrent and strategically useful, a threat to public health and yet also a valuable tool for its preservation. However, as the experiences of Buxton’s subjects would indicate, scientific usefulness did not easily translate into social rehabilitation. Instead, these individuals were swiftly escorted from laboratories – or left naked on the floor of casualty departments – and their contributions relegated to a historical footnote in the wartime march of scientific progress.
A version of this article was first published on the ‘Stray Voices’ website (based at the Institute of Historical Research): a School of Advanced Study (SAS) funded project which sought to stimulate insight into the stories of homeless men and women whose voices remain silent or unheeded within the historical record.