MORPATHIA: Wide range of diseases affected folk in the 1800s

In October 1873, Mr Frederick Barrow was elected House Surgeon to the Morpeth Dispensary, having already given good service as locum for the six weeks or so before that.

By Roger Hawkins
Monday, 10th January 2022, 1:00 pm
The Mayor’s Parlour was once the Reading Room of the Mechanics’ Institute.
The Mayor’s Parlour was once the Reading Room of the Mechanics’ Institute.

On January 10, 1874, he gave the medical report for the year at the annual meeting of governors and subscribers, based, of course, largely on the records of his predecessor.

It included the following: “During the year 1873 there have been 411 patients admitted by ticket to the benefits of this institution. Of these, 372 were cured, 11 relieved, 11 have died and 17 remain on the books. This shows an increase on the number admitted during the year before, of 51, but fortunately the deaths are less by 9, the death rate for 1872 being at the rate of 53 per 1,000 patients and last year only 27.

“The causes of these deaths are, pneumonia 2, phthisis 2, tubercular meningitis 2, infantile diarrhoea 1, marasmus 1, Brights disease 1, cancer 1, and only 1 from febricula, being the only death from fever of any kind.

“During the year there have been the following epidemics, but on a scale of a mild type: (i) 23 cases of influenza; (ii) several cases of (illegible) and ophthalmia; (iii) 11 cases of mumps; (iv) several cases of quinsy. Of the fevers generally, there was one severe case of scarlet fever (anginosa), 3 cases of typhoid fever and 3 of febricula.

“Since the year 1850, there have been a total of 19,450 patients admitted by ticket, being an average of 810 per annum; and in the last 10 years, 6,202 patients, an average of 620 per annum.”

At the same meeting, the previous house surgeon, Dr Skrimshire, and Dr Clarkson (who had been the house surgeon some years before) were both elected as honorary surgeons.

By now the Morpeth Herald was full of local news, and at end of the month reported that: “Morpeth Subscription Ball was held in the Town Hall … a large company being present, among whom we noticed ... Dr Barrow.”

In March, Dr Clarkson, who was the Medical Officer of Health for Morpeth, reported to the monthly meeting of the Board of Health on the outbreak of scarlet fever: “To escape a visitation of this and other epidemics is what we cannot rationally expect; to keep them within legitimate bounds is what we aim at; and, so far, we have been successful; for by the unremitting application of carbolic fumigation, combined with external and internal cleanliness, I know of no instance where the disease has spread from house to house contiguously.

“Such, too, has been the experience of the dispensary surgeon; to his astonishment as well as my own; for the ablest writers on scarlet fever would lead us to believe that its contagion is of such a virulent nature, as to baffle the counteragency of the most powerful disinfectants.

“Not so. One family – father and three children – with difficulty weathered the storm of a most malignant attack; yet the neighbours on the same flat, by the diligent use of the above means, escaped.

“Another of many children had a like fate, with a like gratifying result; while a third instance, in Union Street, was so seriously ill as to be despaired of, and yet even in that densely populated and badly ventilated locality, I know of no fresh cases.

“In a word, if fumigation be perseveringly adopted by the infected and their neighbours ... the development of fever can be very materially modified by this and similar agencies.”

In April, his report was not so sanguine.

There had been seven deaths from scarlet fever, three of them were young children under four years of age, but his report added: “The epidemic seems to be gradually dying away, for I have heard of no fresh cases this month, and the Dispensary books are clear of fever at present.”

In these and other reports, it is clear that Dr Clarkson kept in close touch with Dr Barrow and used the Dispensary records as a valuable adjunct to the Registrar General’s reports and his own observations.

In his own annual report for 1874, Dr Barrow, now well settled into the role, told the subscribers that there had been 446 admissions by ticket, being a slight increase on last year (it is interesting to note, however, that this was less than half the number being treated during the last days of the late Mr. Gibson, some 12 years before).

Of the 446, 398 were cured, 19 relieved, three were irregular, 13 remained on the books, and 13 had died, five of them from pulmonary diseases.

Dr Barrow added: “During the year there were 24 cases of scarlet fever, 2 of which were fatal, one dying from pre-existing phthisis and the other from enlarged gland of the neck and debility.

“There were 7 cases of enteric fever, all recovered, 8 cases of chicken pox, 26 cases of diarrhoea, 26 cases of pertussis, of which 2 died from bronchitis, being infants, one fractured leg and one fractured clavicle.”

Dr Barrow’s life wasn’t all work. In February 1875, he took part in a Microscopical and Musical Conversazione at the Mechanics’ Institute, where he displayed sections of bone and coniferous wood.

And in April, he and Dr Skrimshire were amongst those present at Morpeth Cricket Club’s concert in the Town Hall, in aid of club funds.

The Origins of Morpeth, £7, and The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, £6, both copiously illustrated, are available at Newgate News.