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The western front and London’s rain

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30/08/2014

By | From the Collections

On first impressions, rainfall may not be something you would expect Medical Officers of Health (MOH) to pay particular attention to – particularly rainfall in London during World War One.  However, the following example from our digitised MOH reports resource London’s Pulse brings to light the sometimes surprising connections and correlations Medical Officers would investigate.

From his report to the London County Concil for 1916, the County Medical Officer of Health, Dr D H Hamer considered the sharp decline of scarlet fever cases in London.  When looking for causes for this reduction, he wondered if the decline was due to the unduly wet weather in London.  To Hamer, the rainfall had had a considerable influence upon the health of the city in 1916: low rates of diarrhoea and lessened mortality from scarlet fever and diphtheria being “undoubtedly…in part ascribed to this cause”.

Hamer looked for possible reasons behind the wet weather and suggests – possibly to our eyes – a surprising cause: the war in Europe.  Hamer backs up this suggestion by quoting from a recent item in the British Medical Journal which talked of a causal relation between “the vast quantity of dust thrown into the air by the myriad explosion of shells and bombs” and “the extraordinary prevalence of cloud, and consequent abundant precipitation during the past 2 or 3 years” over the British Isles.  The BMJ piece noted “it is to be remembered, as proved experimentally by Mr. John Aitkin, of Falkirk, that each particle of dust in the atmosphere acts as a condensor of aqueous vapour” (British Medical Journal, Feb. 10th, 1917, p. 207).

Hamer also quotes in his report from the work of the meteorologist Dr Hugh Robert Mill, who had examined the average rainfall across the British Isles. Mill’s results for 1916 showed an excessive deviation from the average rainfall for South-East England and the “culmination of this wet area was in a rough circle extending from London to Maidstone, and from Enfield to Horsham, where the excess was more than 30 per cent., and about East Grinstead, where it rose to 40 per cent'”.  However, Mill – importantly – did not see the increase in rainfall in this area as being linked to the war.

Hamer concludes: “It would be indeed, a strange result of the European War if it should be proved that dust due to explosion of shells was in part responsible for the notable falling off in the admission of cases of scarlet fever to Metropolitan Asylums Board hospitals. Whatever the cause may have been, the falling off was very marked, and had the effect of obviating any difficulties that might have resulted from the many other claims made on these hospitals during the last 2 years”.

It’s clear that Hamer was still considering this issue a year later, as the introduction to his 1917 Report was not led by statistics on births, marriages or deaths but on the possible relation between gunfire on the western front and rainfall in London.

Hamer notes that the subject “has been much debated by meteorologists in the last few months” and that their conclusion is that it was a coincidence.  However, he does state that the discussion was valuable as “the relation of rainfall to disease has for long been a subject of great interest, and the phenomenal wetness in South East England since the outbreak of war, whether due or not to gunfire, is unquestionably in part responsible for some of the comparatively low death rates of London during the past three years”.

Indicative of the broad range of topics which caught the attention of Medical Officers of Health, this perceived connection between explosions on the western front, rainfall in England and outbreaks of disease is one of the more surprising we have so far discovered in London’s Pulse.  It’s also a reminder that the reports of Medical Officers of Health can shed fresh light on life in London during World War One.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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