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A Significant Medical History

Tuberculosis (TB)

One of the great achievements of the NHS has been to bring about an enormous reduction in levels of tuberculosis. In Glasgow and the larger towns of the West of Scotland, it was as a disease of the lungs that TB crippled and killed most of its victims. Over-crowed homes and pubs were ideal places for the infection to pass from one person to another.

During the 1950s, new drugs, especially Steptomycin, gave the opportunity to deal effectively with TB. In an effort to identify all TB sufferers and treat them simultaneously (so as to prevent mutual re-infection) a massive Chest X-ray Campaign was conducted in Glasgow in March 1957.

Thirty-seven mobile X-ray vans converged on Glasgow from all over the country. In the following five weeks, 714,915 people were screened and 2,842 new TB cases indentified and treated.

The campaign was widely regarded as a triumph of medical science and of organisation and record-keeping. Clerical staff had to create huge numbers of record cards, maintain a massive card index and send out hundreds of thousands of letters and postcards.

Although TB infection is a fraction of the levels before the 1950s, it has never gone away. There has always been a background level of infection of two hundred or so cases each year – as ever, it is the poorest and most vulnerable in our society who tend to be affected.

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Queues for the X-ray campaign in George Square, Glasgow