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.