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Tuesday, June 16, 1998 Published at 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK

Health: Latest News

Before the revolution

In the 30s, one in 20 children died before their first birthday

Sixty years ago, Britain's children were born into a dangerous world.

Every year, thousands died of infectious diseases like pneumonia, meningitis, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and polio.

Infant mortality - deaths of children before their first birthday - was around one in 20.

It took some startling medical discoveries and pioneering work from paediatricians and doctors to turn around an appalling situation.

[ image: Dr Leslie Temple:
Dr Leslie Temple: "We could do nothing"
Helpless and frustrated

The early 1930s were a time of frustration for many doctors who powerlessly witnessed the deaths of thousands of babies and young children.

"When I was a student and newly qualified, there was an enormous area where we knew we could do nothing," Dr Leslie Temple remembers.

"We made the most of what little we could do, but over the vast area of childhood illness, all we could do was hold their hands and hope."

Professional attitudes

Poverty, poor diet and bad living conditions lay at the root of much childhood illness.

[ image: Harold Everley Jones: houses were hovels]
Harold Everley Jones: houses were hovels
Harold Everley Jones was one of Britain's first paediatricians, and spent 40 years working with children. He qualified as a doctor in 1934.

"I stood in a house to which I was called and was amazed to see the wallpaper moving due to the bugs underneath. Many of these houses were little more better than hovels." he recalls.

Antibiotic revolution

It was only in 1939 that the world's first anti-bacterial drugs, Sulphonamides, became widely available.

[ image: Antibiotics like penicillin changed everything]
Antibiotics like penicillin changed everything
They greatly reduced childhood deaths from pneumonia. Shortly afterwards, in 1944, Penicillin, the original antibiotic, was used to wage war on meningitis.

The second antibiotic to be developed, Streptomycin in 1947, tackled the horrors of TB.

In 1960, a vaccination to protect against Polio was introduced to British shores from the United States.

[ image: A child had a mirror above the lung to see behind]
A child had a mirror above the lung to see behind
Mechanical aid

The iron lung was used for the worst polio cases, where the chest muscles and diaphragm were paralysed, and the patient would suffocate without assisted respiration. The machine breathed for them.

Simon Parrit spent 14 months in hospital, much of that time inside the mechanical lung.

"I won't say I liked being in it, but it was like a very safe environment that's breathing for you.

"My life was lived through a mirror. I had a mirror over the iron lung and you could see the world through the mirror, back-to-front."

[ image: Dr Beryl Corner:  halved mortality rates]
Dr Beryl Corner: halved mortality rates
Premature babies

Post-war Britain concentrated its medicinal effort on new born babies; Britain's second premature baby unit was set up at Bristol's Southmead hospital, under the auspices of a leading paediatrician, Dr Beryl Corner.

With a measly budget of £100 - enough for just six cots - Dr Corner and her team halved mortality rates for the babies in their care within a year of being established.

Dr Corner also won fame and accolades for her profession when she successfully assisted in the delivery of the world's first quadruplets to be born by Caesarean; the birth of the Good sisters became an international news story.

[ image: All the quads survived]
All the quads survived
Last, but not least

The births were regarded as a triumph for intensive care, especially since the fourth baby was not breathing when she was delivered.

"We had no resuscitation equipment then such as we know it now.

"But I had a sucker that I sucked with a rubber tube down the baby's throat, and after about four or five minutes the baby cried and breathed; and she lived," says Dr Corner.

Speed of change

Few can comprehend the advances made in healthcare over the last sixty years.

"It's difficult for people now to imagine a world without antibiotics, in which people died of infection all the time," says Dr Leslie Temple.

In the decade before the polio vaccine was introduced there were 45,000 cases. Since 1985 there have been fewer than 40. The other diseases that blighted children's lives have also all but gone, or are easily treated.

The infant mortality rate last year was 10 times less than in the late 1930's.

Dr Temple says: "We no longer expect children to die of common disease or to be crippled by them."

The BBC has made a documentary about the revolution in children's healthcare. One In Twenty goes out on BBC Two at 21:00 BST on Tuesday, June 16.

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