Last week I visited Fazakerley hospital's Stroke outpatient's clinic where I was signed off. The specialist being very satisfied with my recovery from my stroke eleven months ago. These days we regard hospitals very much as places where we can be cured of disease and sent home to get on with our lives.
This week I have been working on my faction book which is a mixture of fact and fiction and is about my ancestors of whom I know certain facts but naturally not all so I have been filling in the gaps in my knowledge by researching with the help of my researcher son Iain the times in which they lived. I am planning on writing three books but this first one begins in 1832 when cholera broke out in Liverpool. At that time the medical profession did not have a definite idea of what caused cholera but from their experience of dealing with this terrifying disease they considered it could be caused by three things and could only guess at how it spread. Something called Miasma from the Greek for pollution was popular and some thought it was spread by touch. They were keen to get sufferers into the cholera hospital as soon as possible so they could be nursed properly under suitable surroundings and had met with some encouraging results.
The drawback to this was the families of the suffering poor had it fixed in their heads that the medical profession had ulterior motives for wanting to take the sick members of their families into hospital. This was only about four years after the scandal of body-snatchers and murderers, Burke and Hare, had been detected selling the bodies to doctors in Edinburgh and had shocked the nation. So poor people had little or no faith in hospitals as a place of healing and instead believed that their sick would never come out of hospital cured. In fact there were riots and protests outside the hospital against doctors who were nicknamed Burkers.
The newspapers of the day and those who genuinely wanted to help the underprivileged and poor set about doing what they could to improve the situation.
If nothing else the shocking conditions under which the poor lived was brought to the attention of more people of influence. The Church and other well-meaning people were already aware of the overcrowding and filthy conditions the poor lived in and so began the struggle to alter things. It was to take a long time because over the next few years more people flooded into Liverpool, mainly Irish escaping the potato famine in their own country. Most had little or no money and has there was not enough housing, they ended up crowding into unhealthy court and cellar dwelling which meant that when the cholera visited Liverpool again in the hot summer of 1846 the number of victims was high and so was the mortality rate in these areas. Some of the Irish victims had been suffering from typhoid when they fled Ireland which meant those that survived were already in a weakened condition so not able to fight cholera. We know now that cholera is a water-borne disease but it was only guessed at during the time of the outbreak and at a time when people were thirsty due to the heat, so some were not fussy about where their drinking water came from.
Two names stand out during those terrible times Dr William Duncan, Liverpool's first Medical Officer of Health. Of Scottish descent, he was born in Seel Street, Liverpool, but gained his medical degree at Edinburgh University but returned to the city of his birth. It is known that he had two practices. one in Rodney Street, the Harley street of Liverpool, and another in the North Dispensary in Vauxhall Road, one of the worse slum areas in the city.
He was 19 years younger than Kitty Wilson, who was famed for her actions being the instigator behind the Corporation's introduction of public washhouses a few years later. During the epidemic she had one of the few boilers in her area and washed the bedding and clothing of those families struck down. Dr Duncan was outspoken in his condemnation of the Corporation's apathy towards hygiene and housing. He campaigned with his colleague, Dr David Baird, for slum clearance, re-housing and a radical approach to hygiene. This did not make him popular with the hierarchy but eventually conditions for the poor began to improve with the help of Liverpool's first Borough Engineer James Newland.
It is to these people and their successors that Liverpool owes its improved health services, its hospitals, medical centres and university research departments. Thank God for them, I say.