NOT the least of the many mystifications surrounding the current disastrous outbreak of Covid-19 is just how a disease that originated in a market in China in December spread so far and wide – and so quickly – that it is killing people all around the planet in March 2020.

At the time of writing, thankfully there has only been one death in Scotland from the virus, but that number is sure to rise. When the history of the outbreak comes to be written, it will be the thousands, and possibly eventually millions of fatalities around the globe which will be the most telling element of a dreadful story.

This column regularly tries to detail lessons from Scottish history that have repercussions or similarities in the present day. Which is why it is very instructive at this time to look at the outbreak of typhoid in Aberdeen in 1964, a sort of Covid-19 in miniature, not least because the infecting agent was a tin of corned beef from a faraway country – in that case Argentina.

Typhoid fever was not unknown in the UK in the 20th century. The bacterial infection regularly killed people until Sir Alexander Fleming and his colleagues developed antibiotics. Sadly, the disease is still killing tens of thousands of people these days, with India particularly badly hit, as new antibiotic-resistant strains are proving difficult to treat.

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Typhoid spreads by humans ingesting the bacteria through eating or drinking and then passing it on. It is an illness that is caused in the main by poor food hygiene during preparation and is spread mainly by poor hygiene after infection.

At Croydon in 1937, a sewerage worker carried on working at a water supply plant while he was infected, and the resultant outbreak saw 43 people dying. Successive governments had tried to eradicate typhoid with public education campaigns and chlorination of water, but in 1963 there were three small outbreaks in England. Numerous cases were linked to eating beef products from Argentina, but the Tory Government refused to ban imports. The minister for health who decided not to ban them was Enoch Powell. Given what happened the following year, Powell could be blamed for the deaths of three Scots.

Aberdeen had seen a previous outbreak in 1935 in which six people died, all from the Woodside area of the city. Every doctor in the city and across the land knew the symptoms off by heart and prompt medical action saved many lives.

In Aberdeen in 1964, the first case emerged in mid-May. It is important to note that the outbreak came in one single wave and there were no secondary cases later in the year, as there may well be with Covid-19 – we just don’t know if that will happen yet.

The first person to become ill did so on May 12, and was admitted to hospital four days later. He and another patient tested positive for Salmonella typhi – related to the bacteria which causes salmonella food poisoning – on May 20.

Even before the infecting agent had been identified, people across Aberdeen began to fall sick. Four other members from the first patient’s family were also admitted to hospital.

Some people became very seriously ill quite quickly and dozens began to be hospitalised. The local press were slow onto the job, but eventually reported on the epidemic.

The race was on to find the source of the outbreak, not least because typhoid is highly contagious, and for all they knew, the source could still be out there and infecting people. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fishers (MAFF) became involved as typhoid was what we would now call a “notifiable disease”.

At first, doctors simply did not know what had caused the outbreak – but the MAFF medical experts soon made a breakthrough.

Of the 41 patients admitted by May 23, some 38 of them said they had eaten cold meat purchased from a William Low supermarket, and the majority of them had eaten sliced corned beef.

Meanwhile, many more people were becoming infected and having to be hospitalised.

The Public Health Laboratory at Colindale reported that the strain of Salmonella typhi from the first samples was phage type 34; a variety common in South America, but virtually unknown in the UK.

By May 26, it was believed that the outbreak was confined to people who had eaten corned beef from a single large tin which had been sold in slices between May 6 and 9. The source was identified as a 6lb tin of Fray Bentos corned beef, then one of the country’s favourite forms of beef.

More and more cases began to appear, however, in which there was no connection to corned beef, but there was to other cold meats from the Low’s supermarket.

EXPERTS concluded that that the slicing machine used for the corned beef had retained the infecting agent and spread to other cold meats, the organisms multiplying when the lightly contaminated meats had been stored in an uncooled display window exposed to sunlight.

The Health and Welfare Department took action to cleanse the supermarket and no further infection came from that source.

The British Medical Journal recorded: “Intensive investigation failed to reveal a carrier among the staff, nor had any member ever visited an area in which phage type 34 had been found. The ‘all clear’ was given on June 27, 28 days after the first notification of suspects. In all, 391 patients had given a history of eating food from the infected shop, 373 having eaten cold meats and 18 fruit.”

By the end of the outbreak, there had been a total of 507 cases affecting 309 households in the city and 33 in the surrounding districts.

Three people died of complications related to typhoid.

An official report concluded: “All but four patients were treated in hospital; the diagnosis was confirmed bacteriologically in 403 and clinically in 66; in the remaining 38 typhoid was not confirmed.”

What was it like to experience typhoid in Aberdeen in 1964? On the 50th anniversary of the start of the outbreak, Sheena Blackhall told BBC Scotland how she had been a 16-year-old schoolgirl when she got infected.

She said: “The GP that we had had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp so he knew right away that I had typhoid and phoned for an ambulance, by which time I had a very high temperature and I was delirious.

“I remember nothing about this but apparently when they took me down the stairs I said ‘dinna cremate me! I want to be buried!’ – which upset everybody.

“When I got to the hospital, racing through the streets in the ambulance, the men in the white coats were there – that was the doctors – but I, still delirious, thought it was seagulls.

“I thought I was being attacked by giant seagulls and I very quickly got an injection in my posterior and that knocked me out cold.

“When I came round, I was in the ward and was there for three months. It was pretty dire to start with because we were getting massive doses of antibiotics, so we were on 16 things like horse pills a day.

“One girl had a violent reaction to the high doses of antibiotics. She couldn’t stand anything next to her skin so they had a cage over her body, with blankets over the top so she wasn’t cold.

“The men came from London – they were dressed like something out of Star Wars, completely suited up – to take photographs of her.

“We got men’s pyjamas which were far too big for us and drowned us. We needed safety pins to hold them up because it was the best diet I was ever on. I lost about two to three stone during the time I was in hospital.”

She said she felt “very much like being a bumblebee in a jam jar. You know, as children do when they trap a little bumblebee and they just put the lid on and shake it up and down.

“It’s exactly how people were treated during the time of the plague in the city. Folk were terrified of getting it.

“You couldn’t get out. You were locked in. I suppose it must be what people would be like in Craiginches [Prison]. You just couldn’t get out.

“They [relatives] had to stand outside, it didn’t matter what the weather was like. The windows were not open because of the fear of contagion.

“The terror was so great that the milkman would leave bottles of milk at the bottom step. People wouldn’t come up to my parents’ door because they were terrified they would catch it.”

That was one person’s first-hand account, but it is particularly instructive to learn about the media response to the outbreak – over the top, as usual.

Headlines such as “City Under Siege” soon appeared alongside warnings not to travel north of Stonehaven, prompting the city’s medical officer of health, Dr Ian MacQueen, to react by saying “We’re not a leper colony! End this hysteria”.

McQueen himself was blamed for much of the overblown reporting, as he insisted on giving briefings to the press to keep the population informed as to what was going on.

He could not be blamed, however, for one Spanish publication reporting that the streets of Aberdeen were littered with rotting corpses waiting to be thrown into the sea.

The hysteria spread south. Caravan sites and hotels stopped taking bookings from Aberdonians, and the city’s own tourist trade collapsed overnight.

Michael Noble MP, then Scottish secretary, announced that a commission of inquiry would be set up to “investigate the cause of the primary infection in the recent outbreak of typhoid fever in Aberdeen and the means by which it was disseminated, and to report.”

It is interesting to note who was on the commission. Its chairman was Sir David Milne, formerly permanent under-secretary of state, Scottish Office. The other members were Professor A. B. Semple, professor of public health in Liverpool University; medical officer of health and port medical officer, City of Liverpool; Dr. J. W. Howie, director of the Public Health Laboratory Service in England and Wales; A. M. Borthwick, chairman of Thomas Borthwick and Sons Ltd, meat importers and distributors, London, and Gabrielle Pyke, J.P., chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes of England and Wales. In other words, apart from the chairman, Scots weren’t trusted enough to carry out their own investigations.

The commission duly found that the Fray Bentos tin was the source of infection. It appeared that at the cannery in Argentina, water from a local river was used to keep tins clean, and it was concluded that this water had been contaminated and the organisms got into the tin through a microscopic hole.

The commission added a rider that “we consider that the methods used by the Medical Officer of Health were not wholly justified”. In other words, doctors should be seen and not heard, especially when they are telling the truth. Michael Noble announced in September that in the light of the outbreak, he would ensure that “additional funding” would be made available to any local authority in Scotland “wishing to provide handwashing facilities within public conveniences”.

To this day, Aberdeen has a reputation for people washing their hands more often than anywhere else in Scotland.