Monday 4 April 2011

Scarlet Fever

One of the most virulent diseases to hit Scotland (and many parts of the rest of the British Isles) in the nineteenth century was scarlet fever. It struck down many young children, and in its path it scarcely left a single household unaffected. At the height of the epidemics of 1877 and 1878 it was not uncommon for the same family to lose several children together. Two chronicled incidents are perhaps typical of the utter distress wrought:-

While on holiday to Loch Leven in July of 1878, William Edward Dowden and his wife, Alice Stark, of Lambeth, London, lost three children in as many days from the ravages of scarlet fever. They were Catherine Anne, aged 5; Christopher John, aged 4; and Robert Joseph, aged 2....


John Ferguson, of Drumskeoch, and his wife, Annie Bond, lost their whole family of five young children in the space of a few days in November of 1877. The children were Margaret Boag, died 1 November, aged 6 years 9 months; James, died 15 November, aged 8 years and 1 month; Annie, died 17 November, aged 2 years and 8 months; Elizabeth, died 18 November, aged 4 years and 6 months; and Charles Bond, also died 18 November, aged 7 months.

In the latter case, a memorial stone at New Monkland Churchyard, Glenmavis, near Airdrie, records the same details. One can barely comprehend losing five children in the space of eighteen days. 

Scarlet fever is now easily treatable.  In the 1920s a vaccine was developed, but since the 1940s penicillin has been used.  Symptoms include a sore throat, fever, a body rash and a distinctive strawberry-red tongue.

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