Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

The White Plague

Fleet Street in 1898The “white plague” and “consumption” were colloquial names for tuberculosis. And plague it was, causing around ten percent of deaths in Britain between 1850 and 1950. Dr Sutherland described working with consumptive patients in the early years of the 20th Century in his book, The Arches of the Years. In the extract below, he tells the story of William James.

From the dispensary I attended the consumptive poor of Marylebone. There was William James; at the age of thirty-five he was dying of consumption in a one roomed house in a slum. He had been coachman to a rich man and had been dismissed for dishonesty without a reference. His wife was a handsome woman, ten years younger that her husband. She went out to work as a charwoman, kept the one-roomed home going, and nursed the dying man. I told her that the disease was far too advanced for her husband to be sent to a sanatorium, and she would not listen to the suggestion that he should be sent to a hospital. She would care for him to the end. I told her how their single room might be improved to his interest. Three days later I returned. She had stripped the paper off the walls and whitewashed them. She had sold some heavy, useless furniture, and that slum room now looked like a private ward in a sanatorium.

As I came to know him, William James told me that he had been wrongfully dismissed, and I believed him. From his wife I got the name and address of his late employer and wrote. Early the next forenoon the rich man appeared at the dispensary and I was sorry for him. A month after he had dismissed James he had discovered that it was his corn merchant who had swindled him. He had looked for James, but could not find him. What could he do now? Could James be sent to Switzerland? I shook my head. “No use at all. If he had fresh cream it would ease him, because the disease is now in his throat. And if you give his wife money she can nurse him all the time in place of going out to work.” He departed.

That afternoon I visited James. He was lying in that dream-state between sleep and waking, gazing at the ceiling, his half-closed eyes apparently insensible, and muttering in a quiet delirium. It is called the coma vigil. At last he recognised that I was there, and smiled. “I had a wonderful dream, Doctor. I was dreading what will happen after death. It is going to be a pleasant dream – a dream from which we never wake up….Oh, yes, my master was here this morning. He’s going to look after my wife. He asked me to forgive him.”

“And did you?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but it’s all too late now.” He sighed, and once more dozed off into sleep. So far as I knew neither William James nor his wife had any religious belief, but they had what theologians call Natural Religion, and that is something which ought to make thousands of Christians blush with shame.

From: The Arches of the Years by Halliday Sutherland.

2 comments on “The White Plague

  1. Pingback: Consumption Stories I | Halliday Sutherland

  2. Pingback: Dr Ian Macdonald - Halliday Sutherland

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This entry was posted on 6 April 2014 by in Tuberculosis.


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