Many diseases virtually unknown to us today were rife amongst British people until the mid-twentieth century. The East Lothian Archives hold the ‘Burgh of Dunbar Register of Notifications’ from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These records provide a snapshot of contagious diseases in the local area during this period. Common diseases noted in the register included small-pox, diphtheria, and typhoid or enteric fevers, many of which have now been eradicated in some parts of the world.
Contagious diseases had a huge impact on communities. In part, because of widespread and fatal diseases, 19th century urban or industrial workers could not expect to live past the age of 45 and as many as three in twenty babies died in their first year. In an effort to contain epidemics, the government required local authorities to maintain a register of notifications of diseases. The ‘Burgh of Dunbar Register of Notifications’ exists due to the Infectious Disease (Notification) Act of 1889. The registers contain the name and address of the person reporting the illness, the patient, the medical attendant and also the outcome of the illness. A medical doctor was paid to produce a ‘certificate of notification’ for the patient, detailing the nature of the illness and the action taken. The homes of contagious patients were usually disinfected and they were quickly removed to hospital. Those who failed to report an infectious person were subject to a fine of up to 40 shillings.
At a glance, entries in the Dunbar Register of Notifications for 1895 reveal the widespread presence of contagious fevers and life threatening illnesses in the local community. Even though the population of Dunbar throughout this period never exceeded 3,500 people, between September and November alone, 71 cases of Typhoid fever were entered in the register. Typhoid fever or Salmonella Typhi bacteria are transmitted by contaminated food and water and left untreated, the illness can be fatal. Improvements in hygiene and public sanitation have significantly reduced the spread of typhoid. Today the incidence of typhoid fever in developed countries is around 5 cases per 1,000,000 people each year.
To look at some of the entries in the Burgh of Dunbar Register of Notifications, look at the gallery below.