Long before the current flare-up in Leicester, some of my ancestors were devising ways to limit the spread of infectious disease in the very same cityby Peter Kellner / July 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
At the moment, Leicester has Britain’s worst Covid-19 infection rate. One of the grim ironies of the city’s current plight is that once it blazed a trail for preventing the spread of infectious diseases. It was, admittedly, a long time ago—1878 to be precise—but the story prompts the question: would the Victorians have handled this year’s pandemic better than we have done?
My journey down memory lane—amnesia lane might be more accurate, for this is a story of some important reforms that seem to have been forgotten—begins with a little family history. My great-grandfather, David McVail, and his brother, John, were pioneers in public health at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Both were based in Glasgow; between them they represented Scotland on the General Medical Council for more than 20 years. (When David retired, John succeeded him.) In particular, John became an international authority on how to stop the spread of smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, cholera and diphtheria.
I wondered what they would have made of the current pandemic. After a little digging, I came across a series of lectures that John gave in London in March 1919 to the Royal College of Physicians. They are alarmingly relevant to what is happening today, above all to the controversies around contact tracing.
He told how the “systematic surveillance of contacts” had begun to develop by the 1870s in a number of cities. One of them was Leicester. Indeed, John praised the city for the way it had handled successive waves of smallpox. He cited an 1878 report in the British Medical Journal, which told how Leicester’s medical officer of health “successfully adopted the plan of removing the inhabitants of the poorer houses in which a case of smallpox had occurred to a quarantine establishment in the hospital, and retaining them there for at least fourteen days.”
Here is how my great uncle went on to describe best practice:
“Surveillance is a routine duty of the most essential importance, and here the value of a trained and active public health staff becomes manifest. When the first case is discovered, and while it is being dealt with, the question of its origin is simultaneously investigated. The movements and doings of the individual before…