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Fever, fear and hunger: the response of the Irish population to infectious disease during the Great Irish Famine, 1845-48

Authors
Journal
BMC Proceedings
1753-6561
Publisher
Springer (Biomed Central Ltd.)
Publication Date
Volume
6
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1186/1753-6561-6-s4-o23
Keywords
  • Oral Presentation
Disciplines
  • Medicine
  • Political Science

Abstract

Fever, fear and hunger: the response of the Irish population to infectious disease during the Great Irish Famine, 1845-48 ORAL PRESENTATION Open Access Fever, fear and hunger: the response of the Irish population to infectious disease during the Great Irish Famine, 1845-48 R McDermott From International Conference for Healthcare and Medical Students 2011 Dublin, Ireland. 4-5 November 2011 Introduction Over one million people died during the Great Irish Famine. Around one third of these perished as a result of infectious disease. The aim of this study is to analyse the reaction of the Irish people to the ‘fever’, a term used at the time, combining typhus, typhoid fever and relapsing fever, and cholera epidemics that swept through the country during the famine years. Previous historical scholarship has focussed on the medical estab- lishment. This study moves beyond that to analyse the reaction of the sufferers themselves. Methods The basis of the study is a rigorous analysis of the fam- ine folklore collected in the 1930s and 1940s by the Irish Folklore Commission. This is combined with a study of sources from the period, both government records and the writings of those who visited the worst hit areas. Results The folklore provided a strikingly different perspective on infectious diseases during the famine. Food was believed to be the most significant cause of sickness, in contrast to modern medical thought on the causes of these infections. Notions of contagion were well understood at the time, and produced much panic among the population. This panic had a profound effect on strongly held cultural beliefs. The most surprising result was the response of the medical establishment. In contrast to previous scholarship, this work argues that physicians and the hospital system were peripheral to the care given to the people, with the clergy providing the bulk of the assistance the sick needed. Conclusions The reaction of the Irish people to infectious disease was complex, consis

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