Friday, 9 December 2011

Feeling Peaky

Dr Eurich
Conquering the scourge of anthrax

Back in 2002 (or thereabouts),  a terror scare erupted after several people received mail contaminated with anthrax spores. In the wake of that, I found myself being interviewed on BBC Radio Leeds as an 'expert' thanks to the following article I'd written some years before. Fortunately, I was interviewed alongside a genuine expert. Aside from that, there can't be many cities 'twinned' with a disease and what a nasty one my home town got...

ANTHRAX is an unpleasant disease. Little heard of today, beyond perhaps the annals of biological warfare, in the early part of this century, however, it was a major industrial hazard for Bradford workers.

The elimination of the disease baffled the wool textile industry. It was a complete mystery - its source, causes and transmission, yet it claimed many lives. Particularly among woolsorters, since they dealt with the very source of the contagion; wool and animal hair. The disease became such a scourge that in France it was known as 'Bradford's Disease'.

One sorter who gave evidence at an inquest said he personally knew 22 men who had died after sorting mohair. Many such attacks were fatal. It was common for a worker to go home feeling out of sorts. Twenty four hours later he would be dead.

There was increasing concern over the number of deaths of workers after handling alpaca and mohair, which had been coming into the city since 1847. Bradford & District Trade and Labour Council urged the need for a Bacteriological and Pathological Lab to assist doctors in their diagnoses.

Technical College
In 1905 they finally got their wish. The Home Office, in co-operation with the Bradford Chamber of Commerce, established the Anthrax Investigation Board. Appointed as bacteriologist, Dr William Frederick Eurich promptly set up his lab in the old Technical College (now Bradford & Ilkley Community College).

Over the next 30 years, Dr Eurich devoted much of his energies towards defeating the anthrax threat. This "cause" was considered his life's work. But he had already gained his professional credibility via other aspects of his work.

Considered a brain and nerve specialist, Dr Eurich made a name for himself in the study and treatment of certain classes of criminal behaviour. For 24 years he was the Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Leeds. He also worked as pathologist to Bradford Corporation, and was an honorary physician at Bradford Royal Infirmary.

At the Infirmary he regularly devoted Saturday's to treating patients unable to afford doctors' fees.

He was educated at Bradford Grammar School and took his medical degree at Edinburgh University, where he became a gold medalist MD. He began practising in Bradford in 1896.

Born in Chemnitz, Germany, in 1869, he was brought to Bradford by his parents at the age of eight. They were typical of the wave of immigrants who influenced the city, bringing with them liberal politics and a humanitarian outlook that contributed towards Bradford's progressive social stance at the time.

Anthrax became recognised as Eurich's greatest achievement. In his make-shift lab at the Technical College he studied cultures of over 14,000 samples of the anthrax bacillus and studied thousands of hair and wool samples. Through this, he discovered it was the wool and hair that transmitted the deadly spores.

Over the years he was in constant contact with the very agents that could kill him in less than a day. As the Yorkshire Observer commented: "He was playing with Death - that others might live."

Though it took 30 years to thoroughly defeat the disease, Eurich made rapid progress. Within three years there was a dramatic decrease in incidents of the disease. The Medical Inspector of Factories reported a decrease in the number of fatal cases of anthrax.

Eurich had discovered that clean hair was just as dangerous as when dirty. Thanks to his research he was able to provide workers with the knowledge to spot likely contaminated material. This brought about a great deal of preventative measures against infection.

Wool Sorting
New methods of treatment also increased the numbers of those who survived the disease. It was through a colleague, however, that Eurich discovered the way to sterilise the wool. This led to the establishment of a Government disinfection station at Liverpool, where contaminated material was brought into the country.

An associate, G E Duckering commented to Eurich that he often used a drop of formaldehyde on his pillow to help him sleep. The smell lingered after it had dried. This provided Eurich with the inspiration to use formaldehyde to disinfect wool - with no detriment to the wool or workers' health.

At Eurich's retirement from practice in October 1938, the Coroner, J G Hutchinson, made this comment: "In the old days I conducted scores of inquests on anthrax victims. But no case has come to my notice for many years now."

In recognition of his work, the Textile Institute presented Eurich with its medal in November 1937. He was the first non-member ever to receive the award.

After his death, Eurich was further honoured by Bradford Civic Society. An oak bench, inscribed with the words: "He conquered anthrax", was presented to the Technical College's Textile Department on the centenary of Eurich's birth.

That bench still lies within the College textile department, gathering dust in a corridor. After gaining renown for the service he did to the city, Eurich's modesty, and the removal of a serious threat from the lives of ordinary Bradfordians, has caused the dust to gather over Eurich's memory too.

At his retirement party a guest said: "The comparative immunity to anthrax and the lapse of time since Dr Eurich began his life's work creates a real danger that his splendid self-sacrifice may be overlooked and perhaps forgotten.

"It is the duty of everyone to see that it does not happen."

They failed. Though perhaps not entirely.

Mark Cantrell,
Bradford, March 1997
First Published in Old Yorkshire Magazine, #4, Winter 1997

Copyright (c) March 1997. All Rights Reserved.

Category: FEATURE



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