Phthisis

Bernard was my uncle, aged 32 on 17 th July 1955 when he died, he was the youngest of 10 children had a shop beside the Olympia Theatre, and his cause of death was “Phthisis”. He was not married and his sisters cared for him in their home in Dublin. As a child when I visited my aunts there was a door at the top of the stairs that was never opened, that was the room that Bernard died in.


What was “Phthisis”? It was the medical term to describe “Tuberculous”. Phthisis was the Greek for “Waste away”. It had swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th Century and was called “The White Plague” It was mainly a fatal contagious disease, which affected many parts of the body mainly the lungs.


I used Noel Brown’s book “Against the Tide” to gain a better knowledge of how it affected families in Ireland and it was grim reading. His father was an “Inspector with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children”. This was 1920s Ireland and a house went with the job, his wages were 5 Pounds. At that time they were living in Athlone. 5 years later in 1925 he was dead, he had Consumption. He left behind his wife and 6 children and one unborn. At that time there was no free tuberculosis care. Hospital care had to be paid for. He was sent away to the Sanatorium in Newcastle, C. Wicklow but as the money was exhausted, he was sent home to die. At that time farms and Business’s were often sold in an effort to pay hospital bills.


When the family victim was sent home they were infecting the members of the household as was the case with Joseph Browne. After his father’s death they had to leave the house, there was no widows or orphans pension or children’s allowance back then. All she had was 100 Pounds Insurance. She had applied to the local authority for a house but was turned down so she returned to Ballinrobe where she had been born. Their eldest daughter Eileen had gone to England in 1926 aged 16 to get work to help the family, and when her mother discovered she had it, and knew that if she died the children would be sent to Artane or Letterfrack as orphans, she sold everything she owned and bought tickets for boat and train to London and brought them over to Eileen. Within a few days of arriving she was dead. She was buried in a pauper’s grave in London.


Consumption as it was called back then affected mainly able bodied young adults, and our socio-economic condition here in Ireland meant that many families lived in overcrowded tenement’s in cities and towns, and large families living in poorly ventilated thatched cottages in the country. At that time there was no cure, and the sanatoriums were believed to be a help, but their policies were just total rest, no activity, 2 pints of Guinness, good food, and as much fresh air as possible. Local Committees decided who got help. Grants were given to build sheds at the back of their homes to help isolate the sick person. Social isolation was the lot of the T.B. victim until a cure was found in 1944 and this treatment was very expensive. For these reasons many victims hid their symptoms, and in an effort to provide for their young families they continued to work thus spreading the disease.


The 1947 Health Act was brought in to curb the spread the infection and it is from this Act we have updated the rules governing Covid-19 today.


It was back in 1882 that Robert Koch in Germany identified the bacterium that caused it, and it was his work that led to the B.C.G.


In 1948 Noel Brown was elected as a T.D. and was made Minister for Health. He had contacted the disease but recovered after treatment in an English Sanatorium, it had also killed his sister Eileen who had helped rear them all. He introduced the mass screening for the disease by using the funds from The Irish Hospital Sweepstake and is credited with policies that reduced the mortality rates by 90%

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