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Deadly diphtheria, dogs and Dr. Murphy

The Digger recalls a disease which struck fear into people not so long ago

The McMurtry family headstone at Ballinderry Parish Church.
19-year-old Rose died in 1879 after contracting diphtheria
IN the mid 1940's advice was published in the local press informing readers that a patient with inflammation of the throat should be seen by a doctor in order to establish whether the cause was diphtheria.

"The sooner the special treatment for diphtheria is undertaken, the more likely is the recovery to take place. But until the doctor comes you are always safe if you feed the patient on an egg beaten up with milk, give him a frequent mouth-wash, administer a dose of salts, and keep him in bed in a well- ventilated room."

Diphtheria was one of the most feared communicable diseases of previous generations. In the late 1850's the disease was reported to have "thrown thousands of families into mourning."

Advice from doctors appeared in the press. One doctor claimed diphtheria was a newfangled name for an old-fashioned disease called malignant quinsy, which was successfully treated in the early 19th century by "emetics and bark".

One of many families to lose a child to the disease was the McMurtry family of Hallsville in Magheragall.

Rose, the third daughter of Captain James McMurtry succumbed to the disease in January 1879. Her name is inscribed on the family headstone located at Ballinderry Presbyterian Church.

In April 1898 the local Board of Guardians were informed by Dr. Gaussen, the medical officer at Dunmurry dispensary, that typhoid fever had broken out in the village, and there were also four cases of diphtheria.

Fifty five years later, in 1953 a local advertisement in the press issued by the Divisional Health office at 9 Seymour Street, Lisburn, emphasised the importance of having your child vaccinated against the disease. "Diphtheria is deadly....children starting school need a boosting dose!" it warned.

One of my older friends, whom I will call 'Sammy' recalls contracting the diphtheria in the late 1920's. When it became apparent that young Sammy was unwell, he was taken to what he refers to as the "working man's clinic" at the rear of Castle Street, Lisburn.

He would later blame the contraction of the disease on one of his favourite childhood pastimes - a swim in the River Lagan. The Lagan in those times was being used as a dumping place, and it was not unusual to spot animal carcasses in the water whilst swimming.

Sammy was dispatched to the old medical fever hospital at the Lagan Valley in Lisburn. He recalls being placed in a downstairs ward. Those suffering with scarlet fever were upstairs.

It was not only a traumatic experience for Sammy, but for the members of his family. His father was not permitted to go to work, and the other siblings were kept off school. The household had to be fumigated by officials and the family remained in quarantine for three days.

Sammy spent three weeks in solitary confinement, visited only by nurses wearing masks, aprons and drapes. Members of his family had to bring in food which was given to him under controlled conditions. He recalls that the boiled eggs left in for him bore his name, to ensure that they reached the correct patient. Even the money had to be sanitised.

An amusing incident took place during his stay in hospital. A nurse arrived at his bedside one evening to straighten and fix the corners of his bed, in preparation for the doctor's round. The nurse, who was busying herself tucking in the bed sheets and linen, had noticed movement at the bottom of Sammy's bed. She asked him repeatedly to stop kicking and moving his feet about.

"I m not moving them Miss, honestly," he replied.

The nurse decided to investigate further, and pulled back the sheets at the end of the bed. No sooner had she lifted the sheets back from the corner of the bed, when a mouse ran out, jumped off the end of the bed and scurried off down the ward!

The mouse would not be the only member of the animal kingdom to visit the ward during Sammy's stay in hospital. The visiting doctor to the ward was Dr. H. S. Murphy. Sammy would never forget him. Although frowned upon by the medical profession in today's society, Dr. Murphy was a smoker. Sammy recalls that the doctor sported a bushy moustache with no middle, due to his cigarette smoking.

It was not unusual for Dr. Murphy, whilst visiting patients in the ward, to be accompanied by one of his prize possessions - an Airedale dog. Thanks to the dedication of Dr. Murphy and his staff, Sammy successfully fought off the dreaded diphtheria and made a full recovery.

The Digger can be contacted via The Ulster Star Office or by email:

Next Week: Dr. Murphy and the Airedales.