Ross in his lab, Alexandria 1915

TROPICAL DISEASE

Every six months we are updating Engineers at War: from Home Front to Battle Front with case studies looking at non-engineering, but related, topics.The latest concerns the fight against tropical diseases affecting troops.

Guest post from LSHTM:

Founded in 1899 The London School of Tropical Medicine, as it was originally known, was originally sited at Albert Dock in East London, as part of the Seamen’s Hospital Society. It moved to central London in the 1920s.

The First World War impacted on the School in several ways:  inevitably student numbers plummeted, and the usual School courses were suspended in 1917, to be replaced by short lecture courses in Tropical Medicine for Army Medical Corps officers, which were well attended.

Some staff joined up, but as experts, they were also required by the War Office to investigate the scourge of tropical diseases that were decimating troops abroad. As the War progressed it was necessary to send soldiers to countries where tropical diseases were virulent. Robert Leiper established the Department of Helminthology in 1905. In 1915 he travelled to Egypt to investigate bilharzia disease among the troops with two other members of School staff, J G Thomson and R P Cockin. With so many male staff away, girls and women were recruited to some traditionally male roles, including the use of lab girls.

At LSHTM, the archive holds the records of Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932), discoverer of the mosquito transmission of malaria and the first Briton to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. He made a significant contribution to the First World War through his research and treatment of soldiers suffering from tropical diseases, primarily malaria and dysentery.

In July 1915 Ross was appointed Consulting Physician on Tropical Diseases and was sent to Alexandria for four months to research disease among the troops. In his report at the end of his service, he states that on visiting seven large hospitals in Alexandria, nearly all medical cases belonged to five groups of diseases usually prevalent in British troops in warm countries: typhoid, jaundice, malaria, dysentery and mixed cases.

Dysentery

Of these, dysentery (an infection of the intestines that causes diarrhoea containing blood and mucus) was the principal cause of sickness in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces. Figures from a report show that from 29th August to 9th October 1915 there were 32,528 cases of diarrhoea and dysentery with 231 deaths.

He found that many of the cases were amoebic dysentery which meant prolonged illness and cases of liver abscesses. Ross instructed that all patients showing dysenteric symptoms at the front be given emetine and this resulted in patients reaching Alexandria in a less critical condition. He also worked with his assistant, David Thomson, on the survival capacities of intestinal amoebae in sun exposed sand.

Malaria

Malaria was a particular problem in Salonika, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa. The casualties from tropical diseases outnumbered those inflicted by the enemy by 30 to 1, and in these places it was a war of germs rather than of guns.

Ross spent much of the war treating servicemen suffering from malaria and also continuing his research into the prevention of the disease both at home and overseas.

LSHTM archive

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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