Fantastic Finds for Friday: Roses for Valentine’s Day?


Valentine’s Day. Not much romance in a medical college devoted to obstetrics and gynaecology, I thought, as I wracked my brains to come up with a blog post for this week. So my mind drifted from hearts and chocolates to roses, then the nursery song, ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ popped into my head, and it came to me – the plague! Surely there is something in the RCOG Archive about the plague! (Apologies to those sceptics who have a different view to the popular nursery song’s interpretation!) Typing the word ‘plague’ into the database, I must admit that I was slightly surprised to find that yes, we did have something!

Blair-Bell with one of his dogs, c.1930 Reference RCOG/PH1/1/3b
Blair-Bell with one of his dogs, c.1930 Reference RCOG/PH1/1/3b

Among the papers of RCOG co-founder, William Blair-Bell, Professor of Midwifery at the University of Liverpool, can be found a notebook of handwritten notes kept by him, possibly as a medical student at King’s College Hospital between 1890 and 1896. Blair-Bell showed an early interest in disease of women, winning the Tanner Prize at King’s in 1895 (an award held in memory of the pioneer in diseases of women and children), and this notebook, entitled ‘Specific Infectious Diseases’ has detailed information about a host of diseases, from typhoid fever (‘occurs in our crowded badly sanitated neighbourhoods…the bacterium undiscovered’) smallpox (‘Negros especially susceptible’), scarlet fever, rubella, whooping cough, meningitis (affected by ‘mental & bodily depression, heat & squalor of large tenements’), leprosy and gout (helpfully illustrated by him as below!).

Page from Blair-Bell's notebook c.1890 Reference S1/1/7
Page from Blair-Bell’s notebook c.1890 Reference S1/1/7

A loose sheet tucked in the back of the notebook contains notes on the plague, including pathological details such as ‘killed in 30 mins by temp of 170F’ and a clinical history of major cases described as:

‘Onset quite sudden usually. There may be observed: 1) Nervous system – vertigo headache, staggering gait, passing into lethargy 2) Face paled, eyes infected…refusal to answer questions 3) Ordinary febrile pains in limbs, muscular weakness etc. 4) Tongue thick.. 5) Bilous vomiting….Buboes always occur in lymphatic glands…If the bubous…disappear it is almost a certain sign that death will ensue….Drugs tried have been useless’

Blair-Bell notebooks, c.1890
Blair-Bell notebooks, c.1890

I doubt if Blair-Bell had cause to test his theoretical knowledge of the plague, but he most certainly would have come across some of the other infections in late Victorian London, and Liverpool, where he returned after his studies to set up a private practice.

There are also some sheets of ‘diagrams of the nervous system in relation to lesions and diseases’ containing some very nice drawings by Blair-Bell of the brain and lungs, but sadly (for the purposes of a Valentine’s blog) none of the heart!


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