21. Death and the Woolsorter: Bradford doctors against anthrax

Bradford’s phenomenal growth and prosperity in the 19th century were founded on the wool industry.  But the industry had a dark side.  Alongside bad working conditions and poverty,  a deadly disease awaited some wool workers.

Death in the Woolpack, 1880s cartoon

Death in the Woolpack, 1880s cartoon ANT 1 p.45

In Object 3 we learned about the innovative Bradford products based on new wools from overseas such as alpaca and mohair.  These bales of wool were often contaminated with blood or skin and sometimes contained the anthrax bacillus.  Workers quickly made the link between these wools and  “bronchitis, pneumonia, and so-called blood-poisoning of a peculiar deadly nature”.  Those who sorted the bales were most vulnerable to what became known as “woolsorters’ disease”, or “la maladie de Bradford”, though other cases were known e.g. a woman who washed her husband’s contaminated clothes, or a boy who fell asleep on a bale of wool.  Death could result within a day or so, accompanied by terrible pain.

Two Bradford doctors played key roles in researching and removing the disease: Dr J.H. Bell, who established in 1879 that “woolsorters’ disease” was indeed anthrax, and Dr Fritz Eurich.  In his capacity as bacteriologist to the Bradford Anthrax Investigation Board, the latter spent many years of dangerous work growing  and experimenting on the bacillus.  He found a method of killing it by disinfecting fleeces, removing the danger without spoiling the fleece or harming the workers.

This week’s Object comes from The Anthrax Papers, copies of two scrapbooks of press cuttings about the disease in Bradford between 1878 and 1911.  The Papers have added resonance because the originals were collected by the two doctors and used as evidence in their work.  They were also used by Dr Eurich’s eldest daughter, Margaret Bligh, in writing her biography, Dr Eurich of Bradford (also in Special Collections).

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