Sir Henry Duncan Littlejohn: Early career and Old Town problems
The insanitary conditions of Edinburgh and especially those of the Old Town had generated popular criticism from early in the 19th century. The sewage system in particular became the focus of great controversy during and after the cholera outbreaks of 1831-32 and 1838-40. Although the appointment of an officer of health had been discussed by the Lord Provost’s Committee of the Town Council in 1858 and the issue had been raised again in 1861, it took a disaster to produce a decision from these deliberations.
Image – Paisley Close photo
At 1 o’clock on the morning of 24 November 1861 the tenement block at 99-103 High Street collapsed killing 35 individuals and leaving many more seriously injured. One young man was pulled from the rubble alive after seemingly shouting to his would-be rescuers the now immortalised line, “Heave awa’ chaps, I’m no’ dead yet.” This one small happy outcome of the whole tragic incident has been commemorated in stone, and can be seen today, above the entrance to Paisley Close on the Old Town’s High Street.
The upshot of the catastrophe was the installation of Henry Duncan Littlejohn as Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for Edinburgh on 30 September 1862, following much debate within the Town Council and a very narrow majority of just one vote in favour of appointment. This post and its responsibilities were in addition to those of his position as Police Surgeon. Though Edinburgh was following the lead of other UK cities such as London and Liverpool, it nevertheless became the first Scottish burgh to create such a post, one that Littlejohn was to occupy for almost half a century.
Though an employee of the Edinburgh Town Council, Littlejohn took his wider responsibilities to the public at large very seriously and within his first year of office as MOH he had persuaded the Lord Provost’s Committee of the Town Council to sponsor a bill pushing for a general vaccination Act for Scotland; it was on the statute books by 1863.
Despite his onerous duties as both Police Surgeon and MOH he nevertheless continued to lecture, usually without notes, his extramural classes drawing in huge numbers of students. These attracted some of the up and coming medical figures of the time including Joseph Bell who is thought to have been the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes.
Between the censuses of 1801 and 1851, the Capital’s population mushroomed from 83,000 to 202,000, an almost unimaginable threefold increase in these five decades. Though the boundaries of Edinburgh expanded over time, this increase did not match the rise in the number of its citizens and it perhaps takes little imagination to appreciate the level of overcrowding that the Old Town, in particular, witnessed. A survey by Dr George Bell in 1850 for example, found that 1025 individuals were living in just 142 buildings, with 198 chambers in Blackfriar’s Wynd. One older woman was found to be living in a room barely 6 feet (about 2 metres) square!