When a killer disease came calling


ALTHOUGH it is only 30 or so years since smallpox was officially classed as being eradicated, today it is often considered a disease that belongs in ancient history or was prevalent only in the developing world.

Yet, just two generations ago, Levenmouth was the centre of a major emergency when an outbreak was discovered in Methilhill, eventually killing seven people, including four in one family.

In all, 18,000 people were vaccinated within five days and 90 per cent of the entire 31,000 Levenmouth population in three weeks, even though vaccinations were not compulsory.

Retired Methilhill Primary School teacher Margaret Hunter researched the outbreak a few years ago as one of the Friends of Methil Heritage Centre but, with this week being the 70th anniversary, felt it was fitting that it be remembered.

The 10 cases that were discovered on Tuesday, October 6, 1942, in Methilhill were initially thought to be chicken pox.

However, by the next day, what was described in press reports as the County Smallpox Hospital had been opened and the six adults and four children were in isolation.

On the Friday of that week, the first victim, a Mrs Mackie (34), of Kirke Park, died, followed two days later by her four-year-old daughter.

By October 18, there were another 18 cases.

The third death, a young woman called Janet Donald, who also lived in Kirke Park, occurred on October 19. The next day, John Torrance (23) and a Mrs Gourlay (21) died – they were the brother and sister of the first victim, Mrs Mackie.

So in little more than a week, a Mr and Mrs Torrance, who lived in Simon Crescent, lost two daughters, a son and a grandaughter.

Two days later, the death toll rose to seven with the deaths of Helen Simpson and her married daugher, a Mrs Walton, both of Pirnie Street.

However, the other 21 cases were making good progress.

According to reports in the old ‘Leven Mail’, there was “grave disquiet” in the area about the way people who had been in contact with those who had the disease could “wander about” instead of being isolated.

The fact was there were no powers to force them from their homes, nowhere to put them and, according to the County Medical Officer, Dr Fyfe, it was not strictly necessary.

The authorities had traced 115 contacts who were checked daily by a doctor and were instructed to remain inside their homes.

But this was, of course, before the National Health Service and some of those contacts could not support their families if they could not go to work. Eventually, the County Council agreed to make payments to those who would lose wages.

Loudspeaker vans travelled round Methilhill to give the public the facts about the outbreak, including telling contacts they would receive a maintenance allowance.

There were legal powers that could have been invoked to force people to remain in confinement, but it was felt the “sense of fair play of those who have been unfortunate enough to be in contact with the disease” would be sufficient.

The success in stopping the spread of the disease was accredited to the vaccination campaign and the precautions put in place by Dr Fyfe, which included tracing contacts and disinfecting houses, bedding and clothes of all the cases.

Vaccination clinics were opened at Methilhill School, St Agatha’s School (at that time at Crossroads, Methil), at the Barrie Street Child Welfare Centre and at first aid posts in Buckhaven and Scoonie Kirk Hall, Leven.

No new cases were found after October 18 and as from November 3, 1942, Fife was declared free of smallpox.

A devastating condition

ACCORDING to the World Health Organisation, smallpox is one of the most devastating diseases ever known and, for centuries, repeated epidemics swept across continents and decimated populations.

In 1967, WHO launched an intensive plan to eradicate smallpox, which threatened 60 per cent of the world’s population, killed every fourth victim, scarred or blinded most survivors, and eluded any form of treatment.

The last naturally occurring case was in Somalia in 1977. Finally, in December 1979, the disease was officially classed as eradicated.