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Tuesday, 14 January 2014


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I just finished Bill Bryson's "At Home" which touched upon (among a myriad of other things!) the state of medicine and hygiene in the past... *shudder!* It's hard to conceive of a time where things that we barely notice now could have fatal consequences.

The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria could shake our world pretty profoundly, Duffers. I went to a conference some years ago and I was rather shaken by the figures cited. Yet the conference wasn't a medical one - it concerned surface science, one speaker raising the the question of which materials you should use in hospital construction to reduce the problem. I concluded that in our house, since we can't afford silver door handles, we'll use brass ones. Absolutely not plastic.

P.S. On hospital infection, Britain did conspicuously worse than e.g. The Netherlands or Denmark. That's not so much a matter of materials of construction, just the consequence of the medical trades being too slack to apply the lessons of the 19th century.

Yes DM. As I understand it the British folk didn't take to washing until very recently, if at all.


It is a great book.

Have you read Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror"?

GalaPie, do you mean "back in the good old days"?!

Hank, no, that is one of hers that I missed.

DM, there was yet another warning issued only a few days ago concerning the imminent danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As for door-handles, the answer is simple, get yourself a footman!

Oddly enough, Andra, I was thinking seriously along your lines the other day as I showered at the swimming-pool. These days I am now so damn squeaky-clean but I can remember when one bath a week was considered more than enough.

Not sure it was all bad. Those that survived carried an immune system that allowed them to do so and hence we, their descendants, are probably less likely to succumb to the Black Death.

And it gave us that immortal line, "Bring out your dead".

It doesn't much matter whether the patients wash, Andra, but the medics and nurses must.

WHile working on my book I found a reference to a minor panic at Hooge in September 1916, when the Germans somehow got the idea that the plague had broken out opposite. As a result, shooting at
rats with service rifles (usually banned to prevent accidents)
was authorised in addition to the usual means of extermination (dogs, entrenching tools and pistols).

Both sides were deeply worried that the plague would arrive on the Western Front, but mercifully (to my knowledge) it never did.

The disease the Germans were most concerned about was Typhus, which was endemic in the Balkans (where it killed absolutely incredible numbers of Serbs) and on the Eastern Front. They successfully prevented it travelling to other theatres with a rigorous regime of immunisation and delousing of troops and civilians (which I have seen raised in one repulsively Teutonophobic volume as 'evidence' of the expression in the Kaiserreich of Nazi ideas that the peoples in the East were 'unclean' - evidently the correct anti-wacist thing to do would be to ignore the problem and let Typhus run rampant across Europe).

Thanks for that, Andi, and for your interesting link which I have book-marked for later perusal.

I also recommend Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeil.

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