Page last updated at 23:20 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 00:20 UK

Typhoid left city 'under siege'

By Stuart Nicolson
BBC Scotland news website

woodend hospital
Typhoid patients were taken to Woodend after the City filled up

In the summer of 1964 Aberdeen was a city under siege, with more than 500 of its residents quarantined in hospital.

The city had been brought to a standstill as the largest typhoid outbreak in recent British history swept though the population.

The epidemic led to wild rumours spreading of dead bodies being piled high on the beach waiting for burial.

The infection was eventually traced back to a single tin of Argentinean corned beef sold in a William Low supermarket on Union Street.

It proved to be a major test for the NHS, which had never before been faced with an outbreak on such a massive scale.

There was a rumour at one stage that passports were going to be necessary for Aberdonians to leave the city
Prof Elizabeth Russell

Typhoid was generally assumed by the public to have been consigned to history in Britain, so its discovery in Aberdeen caused a media frenzy of sensational headlines and scare stories that caused widespread fear across the country.

On the frontline of the battle to save lives and bring the disease under control was Prof Elizabeth Russell, at the time a senior house officer at the City Hospital in Aberdeen.

She was on duty when the first victim was brought into the hospital on a Friday night in May, but had no idea at the time of the seriousness of the outbreak.

The City Hospital was eventually overrun with typhoid patients, so other hospitals across Aberdeen like Woodend and the Royal Aberdeen Children's opened up their beds to new admissions.

Prof Russell said: "By the time the first week or so was through we had reached a peak of about 32 patients coming in on one day, then it began to slow up a little.

"I think the NHS coped with it superbly. I think we were very lucky perhaps at the time, but I was amazed at the speed at which the movement of patients in particular swung into play."

The panic over the disease was so great that Aberdonians were treated as pariahs if they ventured outside the city, and very few outsiders dared venture further north than Stonehaven.

Prof Elizabeth Russell
Prof Russell was a young doctor in Aberdeen when the outbreak began

"It was quite frightening and certainly before the source was known it was particulary frightening," Prof Russell admitted.

"There was a rumour at one stage that passports were going to be necessary for Aberdonians to leave the city, and there are many stories around of visitors getting to Stonehaven realising how close they were and turning round and going home again.

"We did have chloremphenical to treat very serious patients, which in a lot of previous outbreaks, pre-antibiotics, we hadn't had.

"And it was a mild organism so we were lucky - we expected people to die and they didn't. That was a huge relief, but I think it was as much luck as anything else."

Most patients spent at least four weeks in hospital, with no visitors allowed in, until they were given the all-clear and allowed to return home.

The outbreak was quickly contained without a single reported death, and the city was soon declared typhoid free.

A large part of the success was down to a high profile but controversial media offensive by Dr Ian MacQueen, head of Aberdeen's Health and Welfare Department.

He used newspapers, television and radio to educate the public in the importance of good hygiene, but was also blamed for causing much of the scaremongering.

Prof Russell added: "One of the things that is still true is that apparently Aberdonians still wash their hands after going to the loo more than anywhere else in the country, so in a sense the public learned the importance of hygiene.

In 1996 we had a re-run really, with an outbreak of a similar size that killed 17 people in Wishaw
Prof Hugh Pennington

"The public responded extremely well to the messages that were coming from the medical officer, although he was castigated for using the media so much, but as a health education campaign it reached everybody - everybody knew you washed your hands, and everybody knew to be on the alert."

The Queen made a morale-boosting visit to Aberdeen in June 1964, which helped end some of the stigma placed on the city and its residents by the infection.

An inquiry into the outbreak later found that a large can of Argentinean corned beef had been sold sliced from the cold meat counter of the William Low supermarket.

The can had been cooled in Argentina using untreated water from a river which an estimated 66 tonnes of human excrement and 250,000 gallons of urine entered every day.

The typhoid organism was assumed to have entered the meat through a small hole in the seam of the can. It was then passed on to anyone who bought the corned beef, or other products which had come into contact with the shop's meat slicer.

Prof Hugh Pennigton, who led the probe into the E.coli 0157 outbreak of food poisoning that stemmed from a butcher's shop in Wishaw in 1996, said it was clear the lessons of Aberdeen had still not been learned 30 years later.

He said: "After the Aberdeen typhoid outbreak some very good research was done showing how you could clean a butcher's shop, clean knives, what kind of disinfectants you should use and so on.

"Clearly those messages were not heeded in 1996 so we had a re-run really, with an outbreak of a similar size that killed 17 people in Wishaw."


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific