One of the stranger medical trials in Britain happened at the Park Hospital, later known as Hither Green Hospital in the late 1940s – using a decompression chamber to treat whooping cough.
The background was a serious problem in post war Britain with a whooping cough (pertussis) epidemic in 1941 with 173, 330 cases and 2,383 deaths. There were over 60,000 cases and at least 500 deaths every year throughout that decade.
The trial had its roots in the 1920s when a Strasbourg pilot took his child who was suffering from whooping cough for a flight and found that the coughing had almost ceased after 3 days. Why the pilot attempted this was not explained, though. Further work done in Switzerland and Germany prior to World War 2 found that the ‘treatment’ was most effective in the 5th and 6th weeks of the disease and that it cured 30% of cases within 3 days and alleviated symptoms within a further 30% of cases. However, given the scale of the problem and the limited number of non-military aircraft replicating the trials on a bigger scale were not really feasible.
So a decompression chamber was used, initially in Paris, where the results seemed to be similar to those in airplanes, and in Sweden, where they were inconclusive. The Park Hospital at Hither Green managed to get hold of a former RAF decompression chamber (pictured above and below – source British Medical Journal 1949) and tried the same testing – the initial reports published in the British Medical Journal were that it seemed to work for some cases – around a third saw significant improvement or cure.
Despite the technique seeming to work in at least some cases, the rationale for remained unknown. There are few references to the type of treatment after the early 1950s, other than one suggestion that it continued to be used by the RAF as late as the 1990s. So it can, perhaps, be assumed that the later results at the Park Hospital were similar to the inconclusive ones in Sweden, or as we will see later, possibly overtaken by other medical advances.
There were several memories of the treatment in Facebook comments on the post – including being told that they were in a rocket going to the moon and it leading to subsequent issues with claustrophobia for one former patient.
The altitude treatment wasn’t the only rather odd treatment, in modern terms at least, tried in Lewisham there was an alternative tried at the South Suburban Gas Works at Bell Green in the 1920s (below – see notes for photo credit) when the company turned their pump room into a clinic where children who were suffering could go and ‘take the smells’ (1).
It wasn’t a new idea – there were Scottish reports of children living at a gas works not getting whooping cough during an outbreak in Fife in 1891. It certainly wasn’t the only place in Britain where gasworks related ‘cures’ this were tried, with reports of it happening on a more informal basis in Shoreham on Sea and High Brooms in Kent amongst others. There were several memories in Facebook comments on the post of similar strategies being used in relation to taking children to places where new road surfaces were being laid and making them breathe in the fumes.
The logic at Sydenham seemed to be that one of the gases, ammonia, had a similar effect to smelling salts, and the smell of the tar caused a tickling sensation around the throat which, while it brought on violent fits of coughing, seemed to remove the ‘whoop.’ (2)
The Bell Green gasworks have all but disappeared – all that remains is the former social club, the Livesey Memorial Hall (covered a while ago in Running Past) and the now threatened gas-holders.
The trials in Hither Green were not that long before the post-war introduction of both vaccines for whooping cough and antibiotics to treat the condition, both lessened the need to try other methods, so even had the decompression chamber ‘worked’ it may not have lasted that long anyway.
The disease has never been eradicated though – the vaccines wear off over time and there has never been complete take-up, in 2015 the provisional figures for recorded whooping cough (pertussis) were 3063 cases with 4 deaths.
Finally, there is a short film made by British Pathé News about the tests, sadly it isn’t one of the films uploaded onto YouTube so it can’t be embedded here – but it gives a few glimpses of the the Park Hospital and it is worth watching for that.
Picture credits – both the Sydenham pictures are on a creative commons via Steve Grindlay’s lovely Flickr page which is well worth a ‘visit.’