Tag Archives: Roger Backhouse

Why no statue? (9)

Almroth Edward Wright was born on August 10th 1861 in Middleton Tyas, which is a small village near Richmond in the extremely picturesque countryside of North Yorkshire in England.

And here’s the village church, which dates back to the twelfth century:

Almroth’s family was of mixed Anglo-Irish and Swedish origin. His father was a rector in the Church of England but his mother was Ebba Johanna Dorothea Almroth, the daughter of Nils Wilhelm Almroth, who was a professor of chemistry in the Carolinska Medico-Surgical Institute and the Royal Artillery School in Stockholm. In later years he became the director of the Swedish Royal Mint.

Almroth does not seem to be particularly famous nowadays, but he changed the world. Even on the Wikipedia page for his village, though, he is not paid any real attention. The village’s “notable people” therefore, are listed as, in first place, the fraudster Sir Edmund Backhouse and his brother, the naval officer, Roger Backhouse. Then comes in third place, Lady Alicia Blackwood, and then Arthur Francis Pease. Then comes Almroth Wright and his brother, and finally Keith Hawkins, the poker player.

Almroth was a lot cleverer than any of those, though.

Almroth was, in actual fact, the man responsible for developing a system of inoculation against typhoid fever, a disease which, at the time, was killing literally millions of people across the world. In the late 1890s, he also pointed out to whoever cared to listen, that one day bacteria would develop a resistance to antibiotics and then we would really be in trouble. His other main idea was that preventive medicine was what doctors should really be aiming at developing. And lastly, in any spare time he had, he also managed to develop vaccines against enteric tuberculosis and pneumonia, the latter a disease which killed more people in England than any other at that time. Not for nothing was it called

“The Captain of the Men of Death”

In the 1890 census in the United States, 76,490 had died of it, a death rate per 100,000 of the population of 186.94.

Almroth graduated in 1882 from Trinity College, Dublin with first class honours in modern literature and modern languages. In 1883 he graduated in medicine, before studying and lecturing at Cambridge, London, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Marburg, and Straßburg as it then was. Back in England in 1891, he worked in the laboratories of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons and was then appointed Professor of Pathology at the Army Medical School in Netley, on the south coast of Hampshire in England.

Here is the hospital in black and white:And here it is in colour:

At Netley, he developed a method of immunising people against that mighty killer, typhoid fever. And then, in 1898, he went to India as a member of the Plague Commission and tested his vaccine on the 3,000 Indian soldiers who had all volunteered to try it out for him.

And it worked!

Not a single one of the vaccinated soldiers succumbed to the dreaded disease. And then, the vaccine was equally successful in the Boer War of 1899-1902, although a major mistake was made by continuing to make vaccination optional rather than compulsory.

There were 328,244 men in the British Army in the Boer War but sadly, only 14,626 men volunteered to be injected. None of that select group, though, were among the 57,684 cases of typhoid in South Africa or the 9,022 who died from the disease. Exactly as had been the case in India, the ones who had the vaccine all survived because of it.

Until Almroth came upon the scene, though, typhoid fever had always held the entire world in its grasp. It was a simple disease with lots of places to catch it. As Wikipedia says:

“Typhoid is spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the fæces of an infected person”.

That scenario was easily arranged before a vaccine was developed.

In 430 BC in Greece, typhoid killed Pericles and a third of all Athenians. It killed off at least half of the inhabitants of the English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. Between 1607 and 1624 more than 6,000 of them perished and they may well have passed it to the rest, thereby eliminating the entire colony……

Typhoid went on to kill 80,000 soldiers in the American Civil War. And I have seen more than one source which said that in every war fought by British forces until the Boer War, more men were lost to typhoid than to the enemy.

Next time, we’ll look at the impact that Almroth’s vaccine had on the number of casualties in the British Empire forces in World War One. It’s giving nothing away to say that he prevented deaths from disease in unprecedented numbers.

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