Saturday, October 8, 2011

How much medical history do you pass every day?

Every day I walk to my local station to catch the train towork. Every day I pass a plaque on the station wall commemorating an eventwhich has historical significance. And every day I ignore it.
On 8 October 1952, 112 people lost their lives and 340people were injured in the worst peacetime rail accident in Great Britain.Three trains were involved in the collision, which accounts for the very highloss of life (1) (2).

So why should this terrible accident be of interest to themedical historian? Because this was the first time the triage system forassessing casualties was used in the UK:
“By modern standards the fire and ambulance services werehopelessly inadequately equipped, and were untrained to keep trapped peoplealive. All that could be done was a little bandaging and to take people tohospital as fast as possible. Edgware General Hospital learned of the crashwhen a commandeered furniture van arrived with walking wounded. Among thoseresponding to the disaster were US teams from nearby bases, who were trainedin  battlefield medicine. They weredisciplined, brought plasma and undertook triage - sorting casualties intothose needing urgent attention, those who could wait and those who were beyondhelp. It was a new experience for the rescue services;  they were amazed and full of admiration.” (3)
Contemporary issues of the British Medical Journal, and theLancet, available in the Wellcome Library, talk about the efficient use of thetriage system (4) (5), discuss how to deal with such a large-scale disaster (6),and touchingly allow thanks to be given to all who helped in the aftermath (7).
When I do stop and think about this event it is quitesobering. This is partly due to the large loss of life and number ofcasualties, but also because it happened just at the time of day when I’mgetting on my commuter train to Euston. And what other history am I missing asI go about my usual routine?
It also makes me wonder if there’s something harrowing aboutHarrow. Harrow-on-the-Hill is the site of the first fatal motoring accident inGreat Britain (8). But that’s another medical history story…


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