It is sometimes good to look back in time…

Two hundred years ago Bristol was hit by a pandemic that caused fever, cough, shortness of breath, pains in the muscles and a severe headache. Many people died and there was a lot of fear and worry. In 1817, at the beginning of the outbreak, James Cowles Prichard, a 32 year old doctor wrote to the local newspaper and got some support but there was an ‘outcry against him for creating groundless alarm’.

In 1820 he reviewed what had happened in a book titled “A history of the Epidemic Fever which prevailed in Bristol”. He described the number of patients that had attended the two Bristol hospitals and the Bristol dispensary and the number that he knew had died. There was a death rate of approximately 1 in 37 of those with fever.

 Last 7 months 181718181819
No. cases in St Peter’s in-patients95 (20 deaths)150 (16)105 (11)
No. cases in Infirmary in-patients47172 (16)198 (8)
No. cases Infirmary out-patients2511293
No. cases in Dispensary (outpatients)108 (7 deaths)418 (13)449 (19)
Number of cases of fever seen in Bristol hospitals and dispensaries

The total population of Bristol at the time was about 64,000 of which 42,000 were in the old city.  St Peter’s was the city’s Poor Law hospital that cared for elderly people who couldn’t look after themselves, vagrants and beggars put there by the magistrates and the severely mentally ill. There were about 420 people in St Peter’s at any one time. The Infirmary had been opened in 1737, had about a hundred beds and opened for outpatients on two days a week. It only had one resident doctor. The Bristol dispensary was in two buildings and cared for the poor in the city who couldn’t pay for the services of a doctor.

Dr Prichard described what happened to many of the patients who were admitted to St Peter’s. He said ‘many were brought in from the streets in a hopeless state’. They were usually stripped and put into a warm bath, all their hair was shaved off and while in the bath they were well rubbed. Then they were dried and put into a dry and clean bed. If they were very feverish and complaining of a headache they were bled from their arm of up to 20 ounces of blood, which made them feel better and were usually dosed with laxatives. Prichard said that about 70 of the St Peter’s patients contracted the fever whilst they were in the hospital for some other reason.

Dr Michael Whitfield