Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Dangerously Ill - Life before antibiotics

Mary Watson was a trained nurse and member of the Territorial Force Nursing Service and was mobilised on the 13th August 1914 with her unit, No.5 Southern General Hospital, Portsmouth. In early February 1915 she was admitted to a ward of her hospital suffering from influenza and a chest infection. Unusually, her case notes survive in her service file held at The National Archives (WO399/15365) and give a stark and rather frightening insight into how severe illness could be in the days before antibiotics. Not only was she very near death, but even when improving her full recovery took several months. Two of her brothers died during the Great War, one at Gallipoli and one on the Somme on July 1st, 1916. Her family were fortunate that their daughter survived.


Surname: WATSON 
Rank:  Sister
Unit:  Territorial Force Nursing Service, 5th Southern General Hospital

5th Southern General Hospital
Disease:  Acute Bronchitis and Influenza

Patient admitted complaining of pain in limbs, severe cough and headache. Temp. 102.6.  Rales all over chest and back. Hyper-resonance.  Influenza contracted in Ward.

Cough very severe, and cyanosed. Temp. 104.2

Temp. 102.8.  Pains in limbs severe.

Cough very distressing. Steam kettle.

Patient has had bad night and cough has been very distressing.

Dullness base of both lungs.

Very bad night. Very blue. Heart dilated. Breathing very bad.

Patient feels a little more comfortable and breathing easier.

No change but patient holding her own.

Complains of sickness and motions foetid.

Cough loose and expectorating freely. Patient feels better.

Respiration keeps easier and has fallen to about 24 [respirations per minute].  Temp. for three days has been but little over 99.

Improving steadily.

Patient doing well. Heart's action steadier and dullness at both bases somewhat less.

Patient able to sit up for 4 hours without distress.  Patient left hospital on 28 April 1915.


     On June 4th, 1915, a memo was sent from the War Office arranging a medical board for Mary Watson. It was hoped that it could be held near her home as she was still not able to travel far. It included the phrase 'I understand she is able to get about a little,' showing that even four months after her initial illness she was still far from well.

     A second nurse, Agnes Swanson, had a similarly severe illness that today could be easily treated with antibiotics. She first became ill in Salonika in November 1918 as the influenza epidemic raged. Eventually she arrived home, but even six months later remained unwell. Some intriguing itemised chemist's bills survive in her service file, showing the range of treatments that were available at the time for ongoing chest infections. We certainly need to give thanks for the discovery of Penicillin and all that came after. Anyone for a creosote capsule?

The National Archives WO399/14835

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