October 1, 2020

Coronavirus: Does my grandfather’s 1940 infectious disease advice still hold true?

“The room chosen for home nursing should be light, well ventilated and as remote as possible from the household living quarters.”

These words were published 80 years ago and written by my grandfather, Dr John Davy Rolleston, in his book Acute Infectious Diseases – A Handbook for Practitioners and Students. In these dark days of Covid-19 some practices have remained timeless – the use of soap, scrubbing and fresh air – while others sound, well, from a bygone era.

“The open type of fireplace is not only cheerful,” reads the chapter on Isolation Methods, “but affords a simple and expeditious means of the disposal of soiled swabs and other small fomites.” Fomites? What on Earth are fomites? According to Google, they are objects likely to carry infection, like clothes, kitchen utensils and furniture. “Carpets, hangings and upholstered articles are removed. Plain washable furniture is most suitable for the sick room.” Advice that probably still holds good today.

The good doctor is long gone but in the run-up to World War Two he was one of Britain’s go-to authorities on infectious diseases like smallpox, typhus and scarlet fever. In the 1930s Dr Rolleston was Medical Superintendent at London’s Western Hospital and this week my daughter found a battered third edition of his 1940 book, co-authored with Dr Ronaldson, hidden in my late mother’s collection of old books.

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