How Brighton defeated a 1950 Smallpox outbreak

This is not the first time that the NHS in Brighton has battled an infectious disease.

Smallpox, a deadly disease that had terrorised humanity for centuries but largely been eradicated in the UK by 1950, arrived in Brighton in December of that year. Harry Gaston told the story of this outbreak in his hospital history book, “Lost Hospitals of Brighton and Hove”.

A child who fell ill was taken to Bevendean Hospital in Bear Road after an RAF officer who had recently returned from India visited her family home. Her father, a taxi driver, also fell ill.

Bevendean Hospital and Foredown Hospital in Portslade were both put into quarantine. Along with over 100 patients, 50 nurses and 36 other staff remained in Bevendean hospital for over a month, putting their lives at risk to care for their patients and protect the wider public. Food and medical supplies were left at the hospital gates for the staff to collect.

The Brighton Medical Officer of Health Dr Rutherford Cramb and his Deputy Dr William Parker started a massive programme of vaccination and contact tracing which eventually brought the epidemic to an end in February 1951.

A laundry that had been used by the taxi driver’s family was closed and almost 2,000 laundry customers traced. 77,000 people were vaccinated in Brighton during the outbreak and another 50,000 in Hove: some residents who were children then remember lining up at public health centres near Carlton Hill for their vaccination.

The outbreak lasted for over six weeks. The taxi driver, three Bevendean nurses, three other hospital workers, two laundry workers and a grocer’s assistant all succumbed to the disease. A further 25 people contracted smallpox but were nursed back to health.

Brighton was praised for how the epidemic had been brought under control and the NHS staff who had stayed in Bevendean Hospital for the duration were rightly viewed as local heroes.

(Picture of Bevendean Hospital from Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton & Hove)


About the author

Suzy and Sarah are the Administrative Team for the Friends charity.

Friends of Brighton & Hove Hospitals

Working with the NHS across Brighton & Hove by raising money for equipment and services to support patient well-being.