Tuberculosis in Blantyre, 1921

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease usually caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) bacteria. Tuberculosis generally affects the lungs, but can also affect other parts of the body. The classic symptoms of active TB are a chronic cough with blood-containing sputum, fever, night sweats, and weight loss.

It was historically called “consumption” due to the weight loss. Tuberculosis is spread through the air when people who have active TB in their lungs cough, spit, speak, or sneeze, so you can imagine it is highly infectious; especially in homes with several people share the same spaces.

In 1921, a report came out suggesting 78% of cases of Tuberculosis in Blantyre occurred in one or two apartment houses. 23 cases had rooms to themselves, 41 shared with another person, 38 shared a room with 2 other people, 20 shared with 4 people, 18 cases shared a room with 5 people, another 18 cases shared one room with 6 people and 9 cases shared a room with more than 6 people!

The subject of housing in Scotland was being debated in Parliament at the time and people were shocked by the conditions. Sanatoriums were being erected and people who were ill were simply being placed into these institutions often many miles away from any family, and (if) they got better, were forced back into the squalid rented houses they came from where they had contracted the disease in the first place. One MP described these Sanitoriums as being “monuuments of the ignorance of past generations” and rallied that conditions of housing should be tackled first and foremost before building deeply unpopular institutions.

Lanark County did however build many Sanatoriums to house people suffering from a multitiude of diseases, sadly at times including people who were disabled or unable to look after themselves.

Around this time, High Blantyre Photographer early David Ritchie, took this  remarkable photograph of a Sanitorium in Douglas. Perhaps some of the people in Blantyre who suffered from tuberculosis ended up there? It is exclusively shared online for the first time here.

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Featuring Blantyre Project Social Media with permission. Strictly not for use by others on or offline, our visitors said:

Lesley Bethel Hairmyres Hospital was originally a TB sanatorium. The old original pavilion wards had long outdoor terraces where the patients lay in the fresh air all day. George Orwell was treated there for TB and wrote some of his famous book “1984” whilst a patient.
Carole Mackie Rickard Lesley Bethel My Mum was in Hairmyers with TB for several months in the late ‘50s. I’m not sure whether they still lived in the Mossgiel Street in the High Blantyre Prefabs, or had moved to Coatshill by then.
Maureen Friery Moran Udston Hospital in Burnbank was a TB hospital in the 60s/70s.
Maureen Friery Moran Blantyre Project. Paul, my dad was in there in 1973/74. My mum was the only one allowed in to visit him. His kids and grandkids could only interact with him through the windows. TB is a highly contagious disease that is now more easily controlled through immunization and/or the use of antibiotics.  Do you know if the building is still standing?
Frank Welsh We used to play football in the hospital grounds as they had great grass. A nurse warned us to never play there as the patients could spit on the grass and we could catch TB not sure if she just wanted us off the grass or we really could catch TB.
Frank Welsh Maureen Friery Moran The morgue/mortuary is now offices and the old part of the hospital is still there with a new part built where the old football pitch was situated.
Henry Hambley TB was a real threat in the first part of the 20th century and before. Poor housing was recognised as being of prime importance in the spread of TB. Sanatoria were recognised as being of importance in treating TB in an era before the discovery of antibiotics by providing a healthy environment of fresh air. The major breakthrough was the introduction of Streptomycin. My father played a small but important role in the introduction of streptomycin. The standard treatment was streptomycin + isoniazid + PAS to counteract the tendency of mycobacterium to develop resistance. Bovine TB is different and important control is the identification of infected cattle. TB was a major cause of morbidity and we should remember the important lessons which learned since the disease is not beaten and we face the fight against TB which is resistant to antibiotics.
Mary Sitters My Grannie Mary Lyden died of TB in 1923. How I wish I had known her. Her daughter Alice was the best mother ever.
Jane Paterson I was in Wishaw Sanatorium for ten weeks when I was age 10 with pleurisy fifty three years ago it was like a cottage hospital


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  1. Hi again Paul, where did you find the report of 1921 about tuberculosis in Blantyre please?
    kind regards

    1. Linda – im fairly sure this was in the British Newspaper Archive website. I need to reference things more.

  2. Hi Paul, Sadly, I have just learned of the deaths of two of my grandmother’s siblings died of tuberculosis, James McAdam age 13 in 1904,the family then moved from Fore Row to Mayberry Place. Two years after James died, their eldest daughter, my great Aunt, Jemima, who was a hand weaver, died age 16, also of Tuberculosis. What a sad time for this family of eight reduced to a family of six in such a short time frame.

    1. Michael Glangevlin McGovern

      Hi Ms. Marieskind, Mike here whose family the Dolan’s lived also at 2 Waterloo Row. If I’m not mistaken Paul Vaverka once told me that there were 4 rows of houses built in a square quadrangle, one of the 4 being Fore Row, and another being Waterloo Row. Aren’t your families from both Fire and Waterloo Rows? Happy Thanksgiving to all. Mike.

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