Scotlands History

The fight against disease

By the end of the 19th century, three-quarters of Scotland’s population lived in cities, towns or large villages. Fever epidemics spread like wildfire through the crowded tenements.

Cholera outbreaks in the 1840s forced councils to pipe in fresh water; sewage and drainage were put in place; and for many families the shared ‘privy’ became a horror of the past. Middens were cleared, and tenement owners had to ensure lobbies and stairs were white-washed, but still a quarter of children died before they reached their fifth year.

Dr Elsie Inglis opened a maternity hospital for the poor of Edinburgh, staffed by women.

Surgery was revolutionised by the use of anaesthetics (James Young Simpson) and antiseptic measures (Joseph Lister). But few medicines were effective, and it was well into the 20th century before antibiotics (Alexander Fleming) were produced.

Poor diet, lacking in vitamins, led to bone deficiencies - rickets - in children.  By the 1860s, Public Health Boards with Medical Officers of Health were set up to educate and promote healthier lifestyles. 

In Glasgow, one-third of deaths in 1870 were from respiratory conditions, especially tuberculosis (consumption, or TB). It took years for patients to recover in fever hospitals, isolated from the city centres. TB was one factor which led to more public ‘breathing spaces’ being laid out, as well as stringent warnings on how to avoid infection through personal hygiene.

  • Old photograph of Sir James Young Simpson

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