Book provides positive side to doctor’s work

HISTORY seems to have maligned the man who was the first medical officer of health for West Sussex.

Dr Charles Kelly fearlessly spoke out against the lack of public drinking water in Petworth.

For many in the town, getting fresh water involved a fair walk, which meant that in poor weather they resorted to drinking from the river - into which Petworth poured its sewage.

Dr Kelly highlighted the issue and called for change - just one of a number of achievements in a life dedicated to the cause of public health.

But as author Barrie Keech points out, sadly these days if Kelly is remembered at all, it is for his role in the Worthing typhoid epidemic of 1893.

Kelly’s mistake was to declare the epidemic over when it had yet to reach its peak. Barrie concedes that it was a mistake that undoubtedly led to a greater number of deaths.

But Barrie argues that Kelly remains an honourable, admirable man - a man he examines in a fascinating new book, the second in a run of West Sussex Heritage Booklets to be produced by the All Our Yesterdays project in Worthing.

Doctors, Dentists and Death, as the title suggests, is no standard history, but an absorbing and at times shocking history of health care from the 1850s onwards. Barrie draws on oral history interviews, old newspapers and Victorian and Edwardian health reports kept at Worthing Library - reports written by Dr Kelly.

Barrie’s conclusion is that Kelly - typhoid notwithstanding - did more than anyone to champion the cause of public health in West Sussex, particularly amongst the poor.

As Barrie says, Kelly’s reports were far more engaging than modern NHS documents: “He had a wonderful free-flowing style to his reports that certainly gives them interest.”

During the smallpox outbreak of 1896, Kelly personally took to the streets, searching for infected persons who might risk spreading the disease to others. One of his reports begins: “William Glover, 42 years of age, a strolling player, known as Broncho Bill, has been wandering about the county for some weeks.”

As Barrie says, it sounds more like the opening to a Western novel than a health report…

However, Doctors, Dentists and Death gives a pretty grim insight into Victorian treatments for dentistry, with practitioners not even having to register until the 1870s. Unlikely lotions and pills were sold, promising to cure tooth pain, but were little more than quack remedies.

Barrie’s research has revealed that a large number of children died from ‘teething’. The Broadwater Burial Register gives this as the cause of death for three children in one year alone, tragically-preventable deaths.

“There were firmly-held views, both on the part of the medical profession and the public, that babies gums should be lanced at teething time and fairly often too. The subsequent infection frequently proved fatal.”

Barrie has also revealed the barbaric treatments to which mental patients could be subjected, including a ‘therapy’ that closely resembled the ‘water-boarding’ technique recently used against terrorist suspects by the CIA. On a brighter note,

Barrie found that for those who lived into adulthood and away from the unsanitary conditions of the towns, life expectancy was not much lower than it is today.

The book is on sale at main West Sussex Libraries (Chichester, Worthing, Horsham etc), West Sussex Record Office (Chichester), Worthing Museum, and Waterstones in Worthing. Failing that people can ring Chris Hare as the All Our Yesterdays project officer on 07794 600639, and he will arrange for a copy to be delivered to them. £5 (plus £1 for p&p if posted).