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In 1873, the children of a Marylebone doctor were struck down by a horrible illness, and his attempts to uncover its cause would lead to a tense showdown with the corporation responsible for supplying the area’s milk 

Words: Tom Hughes

It was 1873, and Dr Charles Murchison was a leading figure in London’s medical and scientific community. Aged just 43, born in Jamaica, trained in Edinburgh, he was the senior physician to the London Fever Hospital, and his treatise, The Continued Fevers of Great Britain, was considered a masterpiece of its ilk. For many years, Murchison had been trying to trace the means by which typhoid fever could be spread. That summer, the doctor would have the opportunity, unwelcome though it was, to observe that dreaded disease close at hand.

That July was scorching hot. At their home at 79 Wimpole Street, the numerous Murchison children, ages nine down to an infant, would find themselves falling ill, one by one. The three oldest girls, Effie, Clara and Helen, poorly with fever, diarrhoea and lethargy, were sent away from disease-ridden London to recover. Soon after, the two youngest, bonny little Roderick and baby sister Katherine, came down with much the same symptoms. Their mother was frantic. Murchison, both father and physician, desperately sought some explanation: in the drains, in the water, from playmates, whatever.

From neighbours and colleagues, he began to hear similar accounts. Rarely were the adults in any of the homes affected. Since children were by far the greatest consumers of milk, his focus turned to the supply of this frequently adulterated beverage. The quality of London milk was a regular subject for discussion and concern. Even the best milk was often thinned with as much as 30 per cent water. At its worst, it was a whitish mix of chalk and water, one that Punch described as a “wishy-washy triumph of art over nature without ever having been possessed of a cow”.

The Great Marylebone Milk Panic
Within days, Murchison had ascertained that more than 80 per cent of the fever cases in Marylebone involved families served by the same dairy. On 4th August, he went to the Court House on Marylebone Lane to report his concerns to Dr John Whitmore, the health officer for the neighbourhood. The Great Marylebone Milk Panic was underway.

Unusually, this particular sickness outbreak wasn’t in some squalid slum, but rather in the “aristocratic parish of Marylebone, one of the most wealthy and salubrious districts of the metropolis”. And Murchison was also taking on no less than the “admirably well-managed” Dairy Reform Company (DRC), founded specifically on the pledge to sell only “pure milk”.

Early trains from the Home Counties brought DRC’s fresh milk to King’s Cross for delivery by carts to London’s best homes by 8am. The DRC headquarters were on Orchard Street, Portman Square; its directors included peers, physicians and scientists. “All the doctors in the neighbourhood have this particular milk and recommend it to their patients. If anything was safe, it was the milk.”

Increasingly acrimonious letters
Although the Marylebone bureaucracy and the dairy offices were only a few streets apart, the ensuing squabble was handled in a series of very proper but increasingly acrimonious letters. Dr Whitmore, citing Murchison’s claims, urged DRC to give “serious consideration” to halting milk sales until the source of this tainted product could be located. The DRC’s secretary replied that the claim was “absolutely unsupported by any evidence whatsoever”. Not even the entry of Harley Street’s legendary Sir William Jenner to the cause would sway the dairymen. Meanwhile, the sick list lengthened, including “a titled lady”, children of a respected nobleman and “a strangely large proportion of cases occurring in the families of medical men”.

The press was brought in—headlines shouted news about the “remarkable outbreak”, the “extraordinary spread” and the “mysterious disease” ravaging Marylebone and the West End. Londoners were urged to boil their milk. Pressure mounted on DRC, but its directors rejected “panic-stricken” appeals to stop sales. Eventually, DRC offered to halt sales but only if the Marylebone vestry would indemnify them for lost revenues. The offer was declined.

Public pressure drove the Local Government Board to appoint an independent inspector. DRC agreed to allow its farms to be visited, in the company of its own director-scientist. The answer came quite quickly. A widow named Jessup ran the Chilton Grove farm in Buckinghamshire, near the “remote hilltop village of Brill”, a later favourite of John Betjeman. The poor woman’s husband, who’d been sick for some time, died rather suddenly in June; the suddenness led to a report that he died of heart disease. But a local physician admitted that the man had exhibited all the signs of typhoid fever.

Contaminated water supply
In fact, the doctor had ordered that “all the evacuations from the bowels of the sick occupier of the farm, and all of the chamber slops from the sick room” be dumped well away from the cowkeeper’s farmhouse. Alas, the “ashes” were dumped in an area where they very likely contaminated the farm’s water supply, which was used for washing the milk-cans and churns.

Still, it was a day or two before the DRC finally admitted the truth: “There is now, we regret to say, no doubt that a large percentage of the recent cases of typhoid fever in Marylebone, as in some other districts, has been caused by milk supplied by this company.” The firm was roundly censured for obstructing the investigation from the first, refusing to “put in peril the dividends of their shareholders for the sake of a chance of preserving human life”.

Dr Murchison, whose children had all recovered from their complaints, raged on. At least two deaths, perhaps more, had been linked to the milk. Murchison denounced the company’s conduct as tantamount to manslaughter. “Monstrous and absurd,” retorted DRC and lengthy, highly scientific papers flew back and forth in the medical journals.

Disease, death and misery
Once the milk from Brill was stopped, the outbreak ended. Despite the great panic, there were only 244 cases, in 143 households, almost all well-to-do. There had been, and would continue to be, far larger and more deadly fever outbreaks in other parts of London, but location and class will ever matter. Disease, death, and misery were not commonplace in “one of the healthiest parts of one of the healthiest cities in Christendom”.

Among the dead were a clergyman and a teetotal butler, both of whom were mourned as great milk drinkers. The inevitable parliamentary review concluded that the idea that the fevers were caused by the infected milk supply, “amounts for all practical purposes to a certainty”. The DRC escaped condemnation, but was advised, in the future, to act more quickly upon “reasonable probabilities” and “not wait upon a minute etiological elaboration”.

DRC announced new and stricter procedures, more regular inspections of its milk suppliers and a renewed pledge to provide London’s purest milk. The publicity attendant on the Marylebone outbreak proved the theory that milk can be a vehicle to transmit typhoid germs. New regulations throughout Britain were imposed with a predictable rise in milk prices. “If we will have things pure, we must pay for our security, and the choice seems to be, ‘Your money or your life.’”

Patient zeroes
In April 1874, a small ceremony was held in the drawing room of Dr Murchison’s home in Wimpole Street. The room was crowded with neighbours and medical colleagues. Among those present, on their best behaviour, were the Murchison children, ‘patient zeroes’, to borrow a phrase, for the milk outbreak. Their dad, in acknowledgement of his skill and perseverance, was presented with a set of silver candlesticks and a gold watch.

“We owe to you the vigorous proceedings which forced an inquiry and arrested the epidemic,” read the embossed testimonial. Among the undersigned were many listed as former customers of the Dairy Reform Company.

HistoryMark Riddaway