History of Public Health in Great Britain

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

From its Celtic beginnings to the recent Brexit, Great Britain has had a long history. Despite all the changes, though, people still fall ill. Great Britain has created many ways to treat their ill residents, from plague relief to chemotherapy.

Plagues, Poop, and a Putrid River

Concern for public health in Great Britain first grew out of the fear that resulted from rampant plagues. Rats carried the Black Death plague, which spread throughout England during the 1340s. The plague was never really wiped out and the next big plague, known as the Great Plague of London, occurred from 1665-66. By then people had started to figure out that perhaps the plague was being spread from ships coming in from different countries. As a result, many ships and their crew were quarantined on their ships in the docks.

Illustration Depicting the Plague of 1665

Industrialization drove the next few outbreaks. As more people began to move into cities from the farmlands, there was really nowhere for their waste to go but into the street, which slowly made its way towards the closest waterways. The poor lived in slums and tenement houses, with no way to flush their waste. This waste got into the water supply and made people sick. The 1832 cholera outbreak made officials take notice, but it wasn't until the summer of 1858 during the Great Stink that it was decided that something must be done. That summer was a hot one, so all the waste that had been dumped into the river throughout the years actually began to ferment. London had to create a new sewer system, which didn't benefit the slums until many years later.

Action and Inoculations

All of these improvements couldn't be made without government action. The 1848 Public Health Act was created to help individual cities improve the sanitary conditions of their towns. The 1866 Sanitary Act made improvements on the 1848 act, making formerly suggested sanitary improvements mandatory.

In addition to government acts, strides had also been made in the medical field to prevent diseases. The first variation of a smallpox vaccine had been introduced in England around the early 1700s, but the first real vaccination wasn't created until nearly 100 years later thanks to the studies and experiments of Edward Jenner. Vaccines became a requirement for all by the mid-1850s.

Edward Jenner

20th Century Reforms

The early 1900s brought about even more improvement in England's public health. Mental institutions were improved, and people also began to care about improving the lives of mothers and children. The Midwives Act of 1902 required that any woman calling herself a midwife had to, in fact, be certified as a midwife or be liable to fines.

The Education Act or Administrative Provisions Act of 1907 required that all children had to receive a medical inspection before entering school. It even gave local governments the power to arrange medical treatment for children that might need it.

National Health Service

The National Health Service Act of 1946 created the National Health Service for England and Wales. This act was created to provide healthcare to the people. Most services would be free, but there would be some charges when necessary, like repairs for medical appliances. The Minister of Health would be in charge of the whole system. The National Health Service, or NHS, was officially established in 1948. It has undergone many changes since then, from policies to funding.

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