Stuart in Dumfries

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In St Michael’s churchyard, Dumfries, where the poet Robert Burns is buried, another monument marks the burial place of over 420 people, who died from Asiatic Cholera, between September and November 1832. Cholera originated in India and first entered Britain in October 1831. Further epidemics occurred in 1848 and 1854. By the 1840s, although the cause of Cholera was unknown, there was enough knowledge to link infectious diseases to the sanitary conditions of towns and a centralised General Board of Health was set up to initiate public health reforms.

In 1848, Dumfries was again in the grips of a cholera epidemic and Dr John Sutherland of the General Board of Health arrived on the 6th December, to ascertain the extent of the problem. As he found no system of treatment or prevention, he organised the town into districts, drafted in extra medical staff to conduct house to house visits, set up a house of refuge for the ill, and ensured that only safe supplies of water were taken from the river. This time 269 people died but the epidemic was contained. Although Sutherland (1850) does not mention in his report how people were treated, nurses were probably involved in caring for the sick.

Later in the century, Dr Sutherland was to become much more involved in nursing. In 1855 he was sent to the Crimea as the head of the Sanitary Commission to investigate the health of the army and the causes of the high mortality rate amongst the troops. Here he met Florence Nightingale. Following the war, he became one of her trusted advisors, working with her closely on the health of the army, sanitary reform in India, the design of hospitals, nursing, and the reform of workhouses (Bostridge, 2010). This collaboration lasted until 1888 and because of his devoted service to the cause he was referred to, by one author, as the ‘doctor who slaved for Miss Nightingale’ (Cope, 1955, 27).


Bostridge, M (2010) Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend. London: Penguin

Cope, Z. (1955) Florence Nightingale and the Doctors. London: Museum Press

Sutherland, J. (1850) Appendix A, in General Board of Health. Report on Epidemic Cholera of 1848 and 1849, London: HMSO.


Stuart Wildman is a Visiting Academic, at the University of Birmingham, and a member of the UKAHN Steering Committee. He is the editor of the UKAHN Bulletin.

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