Common diseases

L0061357 Girl with tuberculosis of the joints
Girl with tuberculosis of the joints. St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives & Museum (1893-1912), Wellcome Library.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that can attack the entire body but is most known for infecting the lungs. Tuberculosis is an air born bacteria but it is not easily transmitted person to person. It is now treatable but can be fatal if ignored. Back in the Victorian era tuberculosis went by the name consumption. The  Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Strand District for 1898 includes a section on “Consumption and its Prevention.”  According to the Medical Officer,

Consumption is a communicable disease. Every case of Consumption has received the infective material (a minute living germ or microbe) either from man or infected food (milk and meat). These germs are contained in enormous quantities in the matter
coughed up by persons suffering from Consumption of the lungs, (Pulmonary Tuberculosis) and so long as this matter remains moist it is not dangerous, but when it becomes dry the germs may be inhaled in the form of dust, and thus produce the disease in the person inhaling it.

The germs are able to live outside the body for long periods, in damp, dark, dirty places, and especially in ill – ventilated, dark or overcrowded rooms, but they are killed promptly by sunlight and fresh air.

Some persons are specially liable to acquire this disease, that is to say they are unable to resist and throw off the germs of Consumption when attacked by them. This weakness may be in the constitution at birth, and care should be taken to protect such
persons from any chance of catching the disease. A similar want of resistance may be produced in persons by intemperance, overcrowding, insanitary conditions, dusty occupations, want of proper and sufficient food, by infectious and other lowering
diseases.

He begins with a discussion of the characteristics of the (recently discovered) germ that is consumption or rather tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is in high quantity in the substance coughed out from one that is infected by the disease. When the matter is wet it can’t spread, making it harmless. But when it is dry is when it can be spread through such means as dust particles. Tuberculosis thrives in dark, damp areas especially when those areas are overcrowded. On the other hand if the germ is exposed to sunlight and fresh air it dies almost immediately. This is why tuberculosis was prevalent in London especially in the pooe districts. Charles Dickens brought up an example of how tuberculosis acts in the perfect conditions. In Newcastle England in 1843 there was a case with a two story building that housed seven families. Four of these seven families became victims of of tuberculosis.

Whooping cough is highly infectious, especially in children. It usually starts out just like a normal cold would with a high fever and dry cough. The cough will gradually become noisier and will occur in sudden outburst usually finishing with a whoop, hence the name whooping cough. The eyes will get watery and the face will be flushed. However in between coughing attacks the subject looks fine. If left untreated the cough can cause inflammation of the lungs which then can lead to violent convulsions or muscle spasms that can get so bad that it could lead to fatal consequences such as death. In the Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Southgate for 1898 he states that whooping cough kills more children than typhoid fever and small pox. This disease along with the measles killed 2,500 people in London every year in the late 19th century.

Measles and Whooping Cough are very infectious, and although, when care is taken,
generally mild diseases, are very liable to be attended with dangerous complications; chiefly on this account, these diseases cause many deaths, and in London alone over 2,500 deaths each occur every year from Measles and Whooping Cough. These two diseases, therefore, kill more children than Typhoid Fever, Smallpox, and Diphtheria combined . . .

L0019716 Green Smallpox-pustules by Carswell.
Green Smallpox-pustules by Carswell (1831). Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Smallpox is a contagious disease caused by the variola virus which is said to have evolved from an African rodent ten millennia ago. Its defining characteristic is the raised bumps that appear all over the body. The symptoms of smallpox consist of fever, overall discomfort, headache, severe fatigue, severe back pain, and possible vomiting. Though there was no sure fire cure for smallpox, vaccination brought the incidence of the disease down.  According to the Report of the Medical Officer of Health for London County Council for 1901, smallpox decreased in London between 1851 and 1901 from .28 to as low as .001.

Written by Chris Shannon