Health problems of 1911 remain, says Lancet

The Lancet has revisited a 100-year-old editorial examining the biggest medical challenges of the day – and concluded that many still remain.

In his 1911 editorial, Samuel Squire Sprigge, the then editor, praised recent advances against rabies, diphtheria, and the plague. But, he warned, the ‘demon of tuberculosis’ had not been eliminated. And it still hasn’t, with around 1.7 million people believed to have died from the disease last year.

With 25 years to go before the foundation of Britain’s National Health Service, Sprigge was also deeply concerned about the health of the less well-off and the future of charitable hospitals, in an article which echoes the US debate over universal healthcare.

“History renders some content poignant. The review of A handbook for medical officers in the field foreshadowed the world war that would soon destroy the world that readers knew in 1911,” the new editorial reads.

“A provincial UK hospital announced plans to acquire an x-ray machine, citing among other reasons that it could be used to treat ringworm; years later those treated would have higher risks of cancer. From Vienna came news about superior health among the city’s 180 000 Jewish people, whom a generation later would face lethal persecution.”

Quackery, says the Lancet, was a concern then as now; while the 1911 editorial calls for legislation against the “grasping charlatan and dangerous quack”, the latest issue contains concerns about homeopathy.

And there’s a big emphasis on the problem of syphilis – “more of relevance to practice in 2011 than one might comfortably admit,” say the editors of today.