Sunday, 10 May 2015

Postman's Park (10): Samuel Rabbeth


Samuel Rabbeth's story is not dissimilar to that of William Freer Lucas, highlighting the potential dangers faced by nineteenth-century doctors. The 27-year-old was senior residential medical officer at the Royal Free Hospital (then at Gray's Inn Road). He was treating a four-year-old for diphtheria, and again the method of treatment was a tracheotomy. However, it was unsuccessful because a membrane continued to obstruct the boy's breathing. Rabbeth therefore knowingly risked his own life in an attempt to save the child's by sucking away the membrane through a tube. Tragically, both he and the boy died of the disease.
 
The medical profession was not united in applauding his self-sacrifice. In Everyday Heroism, John Price describes how some practitioners suggested that an air pump or syringe should have been used; to them, his actions were foolhardy as much as they were brave.

Thanks to vaccination against diphtheria, contemporary Britons have largely forgotten the dangers the disease held. However, the Victorians were very aware of its risks: famously, Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice died of it after being infected while nursing her children. It affects the upper respiratory tract, causing sore throat, difficulty swallowing, fever, and an adherent membrane in the throat - that membrane which Rabbeth was trying to remove. This could cause the victims to suffocate, and tracheotomy was the first effective treatment developed for the disease. Subsequently, an antitoxin was developed in the 1890s, and a vaccine in 1913.

Rabbeth's memorial plaque states:

SAMUEL RABBETH, MEDICAL OFFICER OF THE ROYAL FREE HOSPITAL, WHO TRIED TO SAVE A CHILD SUFFERING FROM DIPHTHERIA AT THE COST OF HIS OWN LIFE, OCTOBER 26 1884.

1 comment:

HughB said...

Diphtheria was certainly in the public consciousness - I seem to recall an incident from Rudyard Kipling's "Stalky & Co" where the headmaster of his school performed a similar deed and survived, but was heroically reticent about it.

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