In Aberdeen

Hugh Pennington

In 1964 there was a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen caused by contaminated corned beef from Argentina. Opinion among older Aberdonians is sharply divided about Ian MacQueen, the local medical officer of health. Some say he saved the city. Others say he did more damage than good.

Dr MacQueen ran daily press conferences. At the beginning he said the outbreak was under control and the number of cases would be small. Then, as case numbers continued to rise, he started doom-laden talk about a second wave, and predicted as many as 40,000 possible cases. But as case numbers fell, his waves turned into a series of wavelets. At the end of the outbreak, 507 cases had been diagnosed. There were no waves, or even wavelets. Three people died, none of typhoid.

Daft things were done. Union Street was sprayed with disinfectant. A woman was recorded as soaking bacon in Milton disinfectant before cooking. Typhoid Notice Number 3 from the University of Aberdeen said: ‘There is a remote risk of infection from perspiration on examination scripts. Examiners who wish to take precautions on this score should wear cotton gloves.’ A little boy was seen urinating into the gutter and then bursting into tears because he didn’t know where to wash his hands. Paddling in the sea was considered dangerous.

Aberdeen became known as ‘the beleaguered city’. The tourist trade collapsed. Schools, ballrooms and bingo halls were closed. Rehabilitation started with the discharge of the first patient from hospital, a 23-year-old woman who was given a bouquet and a sash proclaiming her ‘Typhoid Queen 1964’. The real monarch came a week later, and an ox was roasted on the beach. Andy Stewart’s show at His Majesty’s Theatre was a sell-out. ‘Only in Aberdeen,’ he joked, ‘would you get five hundred slices out of a can of corned beef.’

MacQueen used to brandish his pipe at awkward questioners at his press conferences. Nicola Sturgeon controls the journalists at hers rigorously; no one gets a second go. The current Covid-19 outbreak in Aberdeen – 259 cases so far – has strong links to pubs and bars. Sturgeon hammered the eight footballers who had met up for drinks at the Soul bar hours after a feeble performance, losing 1-0 at home against Rangers on 1 August. Two tested positive and the others had to self-isolate. They were lucky. In 1497, when syphilis arrived in the town, ‘licht weman were ordained to desist from venerie’ or their ‘cheks’ would be branded with ‘yrne’ as well as their ‘buthes’ and houses being ‘skalit’ (demolished). In 1585 three gibbets were put up for the ‘hangit’ not only of newly arrived ‘infectit’ persons with the plague but also locals who gave them meat or drink.

Within sight of Soul is another bar, The College. Both occupy premises built by the Free Church of Scotland after it left the Established Kirk in 1843. William Robertson Smith was Professor of Hebrew at the Free Church College. He was tried for heresy after writing an article for the Encyclopaedia Britannica that raised doubts about Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch. Found guilty, in 1881 he was sacked. He moved to Cambridge and became a fellow of Christ’s College, the university librarian and professor of Arabic. He died aged 47 of spinal tuberculosis. His brother George had died of pulmonary tuberculosis three weeks after graduating from Aberdeen. Earlier in his illness he had been nursed by his sister, Mary Jane, who soon afterwards succumbed to rapid consumption.

During Smith’s lifetime, smallpox came to Aberdeen four times, killing a total of 281 people, and cholera came three times, killing about 280. But the Captain of the Men of Death was tuberculosis. It didn’t cause outbreaks so it didn’t hit the headlines. Everyone was infected. Lots of people sealed off the infection in their lungs in what’s known as a Ghon focus. I was infected many decades ago. The tubercle bacilli in my lungs are locked in and have never caused mischief. In Smith’s day such luck was much sparser. Hundreds of Aberdonians were killed by the bacilli every year. About 10 per cent of the dead were infants; peak mortality was in those aged 25 to 45. But few children aged between 5 and 15 died. This age distribution of mortality has never been explained. Neither has the Covid-19 pattern of sparing children and young adults, with mortality rates approaching zero, but killing the elderly with mortality rates greater than 20 per cent in those older than 80.

And to think I was advised to give up microbiology as a scientific career because it was a dying subject, being killed off by vaccines and antibiotics, and because all the important questions had been answered.


  • 25 August 2020 at 7:40am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Interesting article: plus ça change...
    So why HAS the whole world over-reacted to this pandemic?
    Previous epidemics - 1957, 1968 - caused similar levels of mortality without the world’s economic system being shut down.
    Is it the fact that (bad) news travels so much faster today and that panic is easier to foster?
    Whatever, it is clear that anyone under 45 (possibly anyone under 65) has a tiny chance of dying from this thing and should be allowed to get out there and resume their life.

    • 25 August 2020 at 8:28am
      neddy says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Hear hear! In Melbourne, Australia, we live in a declared state of disaster AND a declared state of emergency, which allows the police and other authorities free rein (laws are suspended); we are under an 8pm till 5am curfew; the police drag people out of their cars through windows; a young woman was strangled and tossed to the ground by a hulking policeman (she dared not to wear a mask when in public) and no-one objected; we are not allowed to travel further than 5 klicks from home. This really is the zombie apocalypse. When will it end? Our Premier (Labor Government), wants to extend the state of emergency for a further 12 months (in four week blocks, if and only if needed, he modestly explains).

    • 25 August 2020 at 8:36am
      Robin Durie says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      *Has* the world overreacted? - today, there are just under 25m confirmed cases of Covid, with over 800,000 deaths - even with the extraordinary measures that governments have put in place. And, as these measures are being relaxed, we are seeing rapid escalation in rates of new infections (in France, in Spain, in Italy, in England - just to take headline cases in Europe alone).

      Which speaks to the second point. It is nonsense, & dangerous nonsense, to peddle this story about young people only being at a tiny risk from the virus, & that they should therefore be "allowed to get out there and resume their life." Just because young people may not die from the virus at similar rates to old people doesn't mean they cannot be infected, & once infected, spread the virus, therefore putting others - potentially more vulnerable - at risk.

      There is a further point - if the reproduction rate of the virus starts to rise again, & rates of infection climb significantly, there is a knock-on effect - as we saw during the worst days of the first wave - of hospitals being overwhelmed, & people with potentially life-threatening conditions being denied hospital care, or self-denying access to care.

      Finally, you might want to read about the first hand experiences of doctors & nurses who were working during the peak of the first wave, & their accounts of both the conditions in which they were working, & the extreme suffering endured by those infected. It would be very hard to maintain such an attitude as expressed in your comment once you have become aware of just how awful the situation was in hospitals during these terrible days & weeks.

    • 25 August 2020 at 9:40am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Robin Durie
      You make some good points but I realise that my question was a stupid one: the world HASN’T over-reacted; it has behaved in exactly the same panic-stricken way that the public authorities did in Aberdeen in previous centuries. The only difference is the technology available to modern governments. If Dr MacQueen had been able to impose and enforce a lockdown then I’m sure he would have. All powers granted to public authorities are abused sooner or later as we are finding out now.

      As to the current pandemic, if the aged and the vulnerable were shielded then that would allow the rest of the population to resume their normal business. An increase in cases is not necessarily synonymous with an increase in deaths and may, in fact, increase herd immunity.

    • 25 August 2020 at 11:17am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      A professor of immunology writes:

      "Since reinfection can occur, herd immunity by natural infection is unlikely to eliminate #SARSCoV2. The only safe and effective way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination."


    • 25 August 2020 at 11:50am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Phil Edwards
      Yes, i’m sure you’re right that the only path to complete immunity is with a vaccine.
      But I note that the latest statistics for w/e 14 Aug in the UK record 139 deaths where COVID was a factor out of a total number of deaths that week of 10,580 overall.
      And we continue to ruin our economy and our young people’s futures for this?

    • 25 August 2020 at 4:15pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ neddy
      It sounds grim.
      I must say, I used to think of Aussies as devil-may-care, rough’n’tough, rebellious larrikins yet everything I read recently gives the impression of a population that’s scared to cross the road without holding Mummy’s hand.
      However I reckon that the Australian government won’t be the only one trying to prolong some of these emergency measures when normality returns.
      The trope is perhaps a little tired but, in this instance, still apposite: Big Brother is watching you.

    • 25 August 2020 at 11:16pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Business as usual while protecting the aged and the vulnerable sounds great on paper, but this virus is so infectious that I fear that this idea is wishful thinking, unless we are prepared to banish said population to an offshore island.

    • 27 August 2020 at 9:17am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Graucho
      That’s a good idea! Isle of Wight?

    • 28 August 2020 at 10:10am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      The pandemic's death toll was also in the low three figures in the first half of March. The reason we continue to put parts of society and the economy on hold is to stop what happened in the second half of March happening again. And the reason why people like me advocate eradication rather than containment is because it's only when the virus has effectively been suppressed in a particular territory - and we know we can deal quickly and effectively with any recurrence - that we can stop putting those things on hold and return to pre-pandemic normality. Declaring the emergency over now, on the grounds that (a) it'd be nice to get back to normal and (b) current death figures are low, would be reckless in the extreme. Or perhaps I should say, *is* reckless in the extreme, given that this now appears to be government policy.

    • 28 August 2020 at 5:07pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Phil Edwards
      I’m sure everyone is weary of both the pandemic and this thread. My final observation is that, even at the height of the virus, mortality rates among under-45s were small; among the young, tiny. The aged and the ill must be shielded; it’s possible even without mass Robinson Crusoeism.
      Let the young & healthy out!

  • 25 August 2020 at 10:58am
    Phil Edwards says:
    TB really is the passenger pigeon of epidemiology - on this side of the Atlantic, I suppose you could say the crossing sweeper or the turnspit dog, although its passage from taken-for-granted ubiquity to non-existence is more recent than any of those. Think of Noel, the Bastable sibling who was going to be a poet, mainly on account of the "weak chest" that stopped him doing or aspiring to anything more active; sixty years on, think of Michael Caine's Alfie and his little break in a sanatorium. Personally I think of my parents, both of whom had it at different times in the 1950s. They both spent some time in hospital and gave up smoking while they were there, and my father never really lost the weight he put on after being advised to drink a pint of milk a day, but otherwise it didn't really seem to affect them; it was just one of those things. They were relatively lucky, though.

    Hopefully Covid will be forgotten and enter the history books, like TB, without the preceding stage of circulating for centuries and having its effects normalised and taken for granted.

    • 25 August 2020 at 9:40pm
      Graucho says: @ Phil Edwards
      Unlike the poor passenger pigeon, TB is still not extinct. Let's hope that medicine can do a smallpox on it before it develops full blown drug resistance.

  • 25 August 2020 at 5:23pm
    Graucho says:
    Just remember that if you do not have your health, then you have nothing. Barring a fix, this virus will get around to killing between 0.5% and 1% of the world's population in the fullness of time and a fair proportion of us, especially the males, can kiss goodbye to the idea of retiring to a ripe old age. A futher proportion of the population will end up living a debilitated enfeebled state with damaged lungs/hearts/kidneys. I haven't seen published numbers on how many yet. The world of microbiology is a world of evolution on steroids. The one good thing that this pandemic and the HIV one have done is to up our game in a never ending struggle.

  • 25 August 2020 at 7:02pm
    George Mackie says:
    All the fish and chip shops were closed, the safest food in Aberdeen at the time.

  • 26 August 2020 at 1:00pm
    OldScrounger says:
    Saving the economy sounds desirable, until you look closely and consider the possibility that our current, globally-prevalent, "time-honoured" (i.e. deeply ingrained) economic system leaves those whom it has rendered vulnerable even more vulnerable when our entire world (barring half a dozen Pacific islands) is attacked by a novel organism.
    Early on in the crisis there was much diffuse muttering about the necessity for a radical, world-wide revision of economic and social policies in the post-pandemic era. As time has gone on we have mentally adapted ourselves to the idea that the virus, rather than being seen as a deadly, alien enemy that must be defeated by Humanity's pulling out all the stops and acting in perfect harmony, is a stubbornly entrenched element of our lives that we have to work around. The voices calling for a return to "normality" are now heard more often and more loudly than those earlier mutterings. The long-standing vested interests appear as competent at thwarting the latter's aspirations as they have been in maintaining our planet's headlong rush into climate disaster.

  • 8 September 2020 at 5:54pm
    David Goldsmith says:
    Hugh that is a lovely story, and one we should dwell upon in these troubled and inconsistent times. Tuberculosis of course remains a terrible scourge in many parts of the world, and drug resistance has become an issue too. I do think people were more resigned, phlegmatic (pun intended) than now in the face of an epidemic. I imagine that most people believe that there will be "something" they can do, or take, to ward off the ill effects, then, as now. Unfortunately, at least in terms of viruses, we have been very much on the back foot for decades in terms of therapeutics. And lest we become complacent about bacteria, my comment about multi-drug resistant TB above also applies to many common and previously highly-effective antibiotics which now are of progressively less and less utility. I do really think that leaving all of the R+D to pharmaceutical companies is a risk when a "high-hanging" fruit needs to be picked, for the common good. A funded international consortium (something which this pandemic has now helped to make less, not more, likely) would be needed to address global research priorities - something that the now much maligned WHO might once have been able to lead, if not to pay for. Much to ponder upon then, while waiting for a safe moment to revisit the Granite City.

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