On This Day in 1964 – by Duncan Harley


The Aberdeen typhoid outbreak began quietly on this day - May 16 1964 when two university students were admitted to hospital suffering from ‘pyrexia of unknown origin’. Further cases soon emerged and by the end of the epidemic a total of 507 cases had been confirmed including 86 children under the age of twelve.

There were three deaths plus an additional eight linked cases treated elsewhere including one in Canada.
By June 17 the epidemic was deemed officially over. A William Low supermarket in Aberdeen city centre was identified as being source of the epidemic and it was concluded that a 3kg can of Argentine corned beef had been the initial infective source.

Argentine factories at the time routinely used untreated river as a coolant in the canning process and suspicion focused on the possibility of contaminated water entering through burst can seams causing bacterial contamination of the contents.
The news of the epidemic was reported widely around the globe with one Spanish periodical reporting that towns throughout Aberdeenshire were littered with rotting corpses waiting to be thrown into the sea.

In the wake of the outbreak there were enquiries at both local and national level, the Milne Enquiry being perhaps the most influential. The Milne Report squarely placed the blame on imports from the Argentine but bizarrely concluded that there was no evidence that the infected meat could have come from government stockpiles. This was an issue because government warehouses at the time held vast stocks of Argentine corned beef as part of a national emergency plan to tide the UK over in case of a nuclear war and each year around 10% of the stockpile was released into the UK domestic market.
It took almost 10 years for the stockpiled emergency corned beef to be disposed of. The method of disposal was the export of the suspect food overseas with a proviso that the meat should be reprocessed. Not only had the unfortunate citizens of Aberdeenshire eaten the evidence from the initial source of the outbreak but unsuspecting citizens abroad would unwittingly consume the remaining evidence.

In a nod to the stereotypical notion that Aberdonians are careful with the contents of their wallets a Scottish entertainer of the time added his brand of humour to the already large collection of derogatory comments surrounding the epidemic.

That man was Andy Stewart, a Scottish entertainer who should perhaps have known better. Infamously, he satirized not only the folk of Aberdeen but also the entire Scottish nation when he suggested that only in Aberdeen could 500 people each obtain a slice from a single can of corned beef. Despite the dark humour, almost 150,000 folk paid to attend his 1964 sell-out run at His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen.

As a postscript, Michael Noble MP then Secretary of State for Scotland announced in September 1964 that in the light of the Aberdeenshire Typhoid Epidemic he would ensure that additional funding would be made available to any local authority in Scotland “wishing to provide hand washing facilities within public conveniences”. He urged that councils should take up this generous offer before the end of the financial year. Unbelievably, the vast majority of public toilets of the period had no such facilities!

North-east folk were, of course, already in the habit of washing their hands at every available opportunity despite comments by local comedy revue act ‘Scotland the What’ that “We never washed wir’ hands unless we did the lavvie first.”

More in The Little History of Aberdeenshire and The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire. Both titles are published by The History Press and available from Amazon.

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