HC Deb 30 March 1825 vol 12 cc1315-26

Mr. C. Grant moved the order of the day for the second reading of the Quarantine Laws bill. The right hon. gentleman made a statement to the House, but in so low a tone of voice, that not a single observation reached the gallery.

Mr. John Smith

said, he hoped the House would lend their attention for a little to this very important subject. The proposed measure had his most cordial approbation; for he was satisfied, that considerable delusion respecting this measure existed in the country. His only objection to the measure was, that it did not go far enough; for he was of opinion, that it would not be unsafe to undo still more of the Quarantine laws; and he would state, as shortly as possible, his reasons for that opinion. Dr. Maclean, who had greater opportunities of examining the nature of the plague than any man living, had declared it not to be contagious; and had likewise stated, that the question, as to its contagious or non-contagious quality, was not so much a question of science as a question of fact, on which any man, who was in the habit of weighing testimony, was qualified to decide. It had been understood in England for many years, that the contagion of the plague was capable of being conveyed in clothing and in goods from one country to another, and that cotton, either in a raw or in a manufactured state, was the medium by which it was most easily conveyed. Now, although he was unqualified as a medical man to decide that point, he was able to state as a matter of fact, that there never had been, and that there never could be, an instance of the contagion of fever being conveyed by clothing or goods of any kind. He might urge as a proof of this position, that Holland, which of all our commercial rivals traded the most to those parts of the world in which the plague was most prevalent, had never thought it requisite to enact, and in point of fact did not possess, any Quarantine laws. This assertion might appear extraordinary to some persons, but he would repeat it, with this addition—that what was called quarantine in Holland, amounted to nothing, as it never extended to more than three or four days' duration. He had a document at that moment in his hand, which showed, that a vessel, which had arrived at Amsterdam, or some other port of Holland, with an unsound bill of health, was permitted to discharge her cargo within three or four days after her arrival. As far, therefore, as the example of Holland went, it was evident, that no danger had arisen from the importation of goods from countries visited by the plague. He would mention another fact, which could not be disputed, in confirmation of his argument. There was not an instance of any individual, who had examined into the lazarettos, having any fever at all since their existence in this country. Mr. Turnbull, our consul at Marseilles, had informed him, that though the coast of France in his neighbourhood was peculiarly liable, from its situation, to contagion, supposing contagion to exist, and though vessels were almost daily arriving at Marseilles from the plague countries, there was no instance of any expurgator having taken the plague since the year 1729. In that year an individual, who was opening a bale of cotton, suddenly dropt down dead. It was said, that the contagion was so strong that it killed him immediately: but the circumstance admitted of a more natural explanation; it was probable that the man had died in a fit of apoplexy. With regard to other lazarettos, it had not been in his power to make the same inquiries; but he had little doubt that, if they were made, they would be attended by similar results. It was stated by Dr. Maclean, and also by other gentlemen, acquainted with the affairs of Turkey, that at Constantinople, when thousands of victims were dying of the plague their clothes, which belonged as a perquisite to the Cogia Basha, were regularly sold by him in the public market, and purchased by those who were unaffected by it. At Aleppo, too, it was notorious that the plague was often prevalent. From that city caravans passed with goods into almost every part of Asia. There was no instance on record of the plague ever having been communicated by means of those caravans. Though Aleppo was often in a deep state of misery from the visitation of the plague, the caravans regularly departed laden with goods; and yet there was no instance known of those caravans ever carrying the plague into the populous regions which it was their business to traverse. There was a considerable intercourse between Turkey and Persia; and yet, though the former country was often a sufferer from the plague, that horrible visitant had never made its appearance in Persia. Looking, then, at these facts, he would ask the House to consider whether no better cause than contagion could be found for the diffusion of the plague. Many doubted whether the disease which ravaged London in 1665 was the plague or not. Yet, even if it were the plague, it might be accounted for by the mode of living which at that time prevailed in England. They knew that in the reign of Elizabeth her presence-chamber was strewed with rushes, and that the usual diet of the ladies of her household was salt fish, hung beef, &c. From such circumstances it might be easy to conjecture what the habits and diet of the common people would be in little more than half a century afterwards; and under such habits and such a diet, coupled with the want of cleanliness and want of room which then existed in London, it could not be surprising that a fever, with all the appearance of plague, should have sprung up in the first instance, and diffused itself widely in the second. Now, let them apply these circumstances to the inhabitants of Smyrna, and the other towns on the coast of Asia Minor. In those places the same want of cleanliness, the same disregard of wholesome habits, the same carelessness about diet, now prevailed as had formerly prevailed in London, and were in themselves sufficient to account for the prevalence of the plague among them. It was curious to observe, that the manner in which the plague rose and disappeared was perfectly consistent with these causes. It generally broke out in the poorest and most confined parts of the town, in sultry weather, and began to disappear as the heat decreased. Indeed, if it were not dependant upon some such cause, it was evident that the plague, supposing it to be contagious, must long since have depopulated the globe.—He would now say a few words upon the opinions of medical men upon this subject; and he would take them as he found them stated in two reports made upon it by select committees of their own appointing. In the year 1811, on the motion of an hon. baronet who then represented the town of Dover, but who was now no more, a committee was appointed to examine into the state of the Quarantine laws, and that committee determined, with only one dissentient voice, that the plague was contagious. In looking over the evidence which was appended to their report, he found that the physicians examined before it, were all, with two or three exceptions, in favour of the doctrine, that the plague was contagious; and he believed that it was upon the opinions expressed by the physicians, that the committee formed the report which they afterwards submitted to the House. Since that time another investigation had been instituted into the subject, and the last investigation differed from the first in this important particular—that on the first none but contagionists had been examined, and that on the second the anti-contagionists, if he might use such an expression, were also allowed to be heard. There was this remarkable circumstance in the evidence of the contagionists—they agreed with wonderful unanimity, as to the existence of contagion, but differed most miraculously in their account of its nature, its symptoms, and its causes. The inference which he drew from that circumstance was this—that the question on which they gave such round and decided opinions was not properly understood; and his reason for making that statement was, a hope that the moment would be hastened by it, when their former inquiries might be reviewed and be brought by renewed exertions to a satisfactory conclusion. The existing system of Quarantine law, unless it was justified by necessity, could be justified by no other reason. It was prejudicial to the best interests of the country; it obstructed commerce; it impeded science; and it was injurious to those who travelled either for business or for pleasure; it was connected with many superstitious feelings; and, in regard to the increasing commerce we were now carrying on with Egypt, he would say, that it would be utterly destroyed, if some alterations were not made in our Quarantine regulations.—He repeated, that he approved of the alterations now proposed, but was sorry that the Board of Trade had not considered it right to carry them further. The system was capable of further improvement; and he trusted that it would not be long before such improvement was effected. Since the year 1819, he knew from his own personal observation, that the number of medical men who had changed their opinion on the doctrine of contagion was very great. That was not the time for him to refer to the authority of Dr. Maclean; that gentleman, whom he was proud to call his friend, possessed more knowledge on the subject than any other man, and, notwithstanding the prejudices and professional jealousies which he had to encounter, he had made many converts to his opinions. To confute the extraordinary delusions which were abroad upon the subject, he referred to some statements which be had received from Dr. Armstrong of Russell-square, who was more conversant with cases of fever than any other physician in the metropolis. Dr. Armstrong stated, that not a year elapsed, in which he did not visit some hundred cases of typhus fever, that the symptoms of it were the same as those of the plague in Egypt, as described by Asseretti, and yet that in no instance had he ever suffered by the contagion. It was the knowledge of these facts that led him to express his sorrow, that government had not gone further in their improvement of the Quarantine system, than they had done. At the same time, he must mention a fact as illustrative of their practical conduct on this point, which he considered as highly to their credit. A vessel had arrived at Liverpool with a foul bill of health. According to the Quarantine regulations, it ought to have remained fifty or sixty days without unloading its cargo. Now, this foul bill of health had not arisen from any of the sailors having been sick on the voyage, but from a single old woman having died of a fever, which some people called the plague, at the place from which this ship sailed. That circumstance made all the ships foul which sailed from that place; and the consequence was, that several of them, which had cargoes on board, did not sail at all. The vessel in question had, however, come to England; and on its owners making a suitable representation to the proper quarter, it had been allowed to unload, and had since sailed on another voyage. He thought that government had acted very wisely in dispensing with the regulations upon that occasion; and he trusted that they would not hesitate to exercise a similar discretion, whenever similar facts should seem to require it. In conclusion, he called upon the House to review its former inquiry, either by praying the Crown to appoint a commission, by forming a select committee, or by some other similar measure.

Mr. Wallace

observed, that he could not pledge himself, on behalf of his majesty's government, to comply with the concluding request of the hon. member for a renewed inquiry into the Quarantine laws. If there was one subject which, more than another, deserved the most serious consideration, it was this branch of our commercial regulations. It was, therefore, his opinion that the inquiry should be delayed as long as possible, when new lights and new experiments would enable them to proceed with greater confidence, in so delicate and difficult a question. Notwithstanding all that had been said by the hon. member the greatest difference of opinion, as to the contagion of the plague, existed amongst the most eminent medical men. Many of those who were adverse to the theory of contagion, admitted that they now entertained doubts. The very existence of these doubts was enough to deter government from hazarding any alterations, which would have the effect of unhinging our securities against the plague. It was too fearful a responsibility, for government to introduce, upon theories, the plague into a dense population, where, in crowded and close manufactories, it might be very destructive, for the sake of any commercial advantages whatever. Government would be a good deal relieved, if any considerable number of medical men concurred in recommending a repeal of the Quarantine laws. The opposite opinions might then be discussed. But, in the absence of such recommendation, there was so much danger in the first step, that he could not recommend its adoption. It was but fair to state, that great doubts were entertained whether or not the plague would subsist in this climate; but, until these doubts were wholly removed, he did not think it safe to repeal all the restrictions. He was therefore opposed to any further inquiry, until a stronger case was made out by the medical men for an alteration of the law.

Mr. Hudson Gurney

said, that this bill was directed to two objects, neither of which he thought could be reasonably objected to—first, the taking off certain fiscal charges unfairly laid on vessels from the Levant—and, secondly, the exempting from Quarantine vessels coming from certain European ports, where, the Quarantine regulations being stricter than ours, there existed no necessity for further precaution—. The Board of Trade, under the Jaw as it stood, exercised a very wide discretion as to imposing or relaxing Quarantine; and the present bill continued to them the same powers.—But, he was astonished to find that the wild theories of Dr. Maclean, as to the non-contagious nature of the plague, were again to be broached in that House.—He was a member of the committee of 1819, moved for by the late sir John Jackson—a strenuous convert to Dr. Maclean's doctrine—and, after hearing the evidence of many physicians, and many gentlemen who had been long in the East,—that committee came to their conclusion unanimously, to reject the proposed report of their chairman, and to report that in their opinion, the Quarantine laws could not, with any safety, be materially altered.—The college of physicians, he knew, had expressed to the government the same opinion. In fact, it was notorious to all mankind, that there was not a country or climate under Heaven, which had not, at one time or other, been visited by the ravages of pestilence. The manner of its introduction sometimes was, and sometimes was not, traceable; but, as all evidence and all tradition agreed in proving it to be communicable, though capriciously, from subject to subject, it was too much to be called upon to believe that Dr. Maclean, when shut up in the plague hospital at Constantinople, was infected with the disease, by the south west wind. In fact, the whole foundation of the doctor's authorities, the fable of the Council of Trent included, may be found in the pamphlets of the year 1721, when the precautions ordered by government, at the recommendation of the physicians, in consequence of the plague of Marseilles, were found inconvenient and vexatious to the citizens of London.—Mr. Gurney said, that he was credibly informed, that the most zealous of the doctor's medical coadjutors, the writer on the subject, in the Westminster Review, having been appointed physician to the Fever Hospital, had unfortunately exemplified the correctness of his own non-contagious theory, by catching a non-contagious fever, and communicating it to four individuals who nursed him in succession. It was quite curious, to see how extremes meet; and that the ultra-philosophers of Westminster have at last arrived at the wisdom of the Turks.—He said, he had been at the British Museum, in company with a gentleman who had seen more of the plague than any other individual now in England. They had examined together cotemporary accounts of the plagues in London, and that gentleman said, that, in every particular, the symptoms mentioned were identical with those of the disease in the Levant. A sort of partnership had taken place between an English house and the Pacha of Egypt, an immense consignment of cotton took place from Alexandria to the port of Liverpool; but, when we considered the denseness of our population, and the rapidity of our communications, there could not be a greater insanity, than, for the sake of any commercial gains, to risk the horrors consequent to the introduction of that most dreadful contagion, merely from the absence of reasonable caution.

Mr. Hobhouse

expressed his entire conviction, that the more fully this most important question was discussed, the more persuaded would the enlightened part of the community be, as to the necessity of a change in the Quarantine laws. Indeed, from the progress that sounder views were making in the public mind, he had every reason to anticipate, that no very long period would elapse, before the House and the country at large, came to a conclusion the very opposite of that drawn by his hon. friend who spoke last. If they looked into the phenomena that attended the great plague of London, they would see exactly that, from every account of that dreadful calamity, it manifested the same symptoms, and evinced the same results, as were observed in the plagues of Egypt. The new comers were generally attacked; while others were not affected at all. There were portions of London and its vicinity in which the disease made no appearance, though there was a very active communication between the parts where the disease raged and where it was not felt. The villages of Hampstead and High gate were wholly free from the malady; though the intercourse with the metropolis was not for a moment suspended. Another similarity was most remarkable, and which, in his judgment, extinguished the very idea of contagion, namely, that the plague of London, in the same way as in Egypt, ceased altogether when the disease was at its greatest height. In Egypt it was ascertained, that the dis- order decreased as the waters of the Nile increased. On what principle of an infectious disease was it possible to reconcile such an effect? It was true, that for some years, most eminent professional men did believe that the plague was a disease that was communicated by contagion. But, when the question had been brought before the world recently, some very able men had laudably stated, that their ideas bad changed. Amongst those was Dr. Rush, of the United States, who had most meritoriously published a recantation of his former opinions, as the best reparation he could make for the support he had previously given to the delusive views of contagion. But, it was a mistake to state that in ancient times the plague was so considered. It was only after the Council of Trent that such a belief prevailed. The most accurate investigators had, in his opinion, satisfactorily proved, that it was attended with all the phenomena which accompanied epidemic diseases. In the great plague at Malta, in the year 1813, it was found that, on one spot of that island all the residents died, while in another village, not very distant, none of the inhabitants were attacked. It was said, that Dr. Maclean, the enlightened anti-contagionist, had himself been infected with the plague at Constantinople: but, those who made that objection did not state the fact, that though the doctor was afflicted, yet of nineteen medical and other attendants, who waited on the sick, and actually resided in the Pest House Hospital, not one of them was attacked, while Dr. Maclean, who was not in such close contact, was diseased. His hon. and gallant friend (sir R. Wilson) would bear witness to what he himself had seen in Egypt. It was well known, that the French physician, Dr. Asseretti had inoculated himself with the plague virus, but the infection did not take place. Napoleon Bonaparte had repeatedly touched the pustules of the deceased soldiers, and with perfect security. It was well known that there was a line of demarkation which cut off Upper Egypt, beyond which the plague never passed. But, notwithstanding his own conviction on the point, he still considered that his majesty's government were proceeding quite right in not incurring a responsibility. He had no doubt, however, that the time would shortly arrive, when his hon. friend near him, and all the old ladies in England, would go to bed and sleep without the least fear of having the plague introduced into the city, by unpacking a bundle of rags or a bale of cotton from the Levant. These Quarantine regulations were attended with a very great public expense, besides a great commercial injury. The regulations against the communication of the plague at Malta, had cost no less than a million of money. In Spain, a very great change of opinion had taken place relative to the character of the yellow fever. It was true that certain physicians had contended for the necessity of guarding against its spread as contagious. But the whole of the professional men at Barcelona, where Dr. Maclean was at the time, held a contrary opinion. With respect to the opinions of professional men, there were many reasons why much confidence should not be placed in their conclusions. Such men were generally under shackles from their very calling, and were rarely found the friends of improvement. But he would say of that individual whose name had been so deservedly eulogised that evening—he meant Dr. Maclean—that he was one of those extraordinary persons, destined, as well from vigour of intellect as unremitting exertion and industry, to create a great change in the world, and to whom, in future ages, the finger of the historian would point, as one of the greatest benefactors to his species.

Mr. Trant

said, that in passing up the Red Sea, and travelling in Egypt, he had accquired some experience connected with this subject. When he was in Cairo, he was given to understand, that the plague generally broke out in June. The christians believed, rather superstitiously, that it was always on St. John's day. But a fact which was less scrupulously believed was, that it generally broke out in the quarter of the Jews; and the reason given for that was, that those persons bought all the old clothes, and among them those of the parties who were the first infected. However that might be, the rage of the disorder among the Jews was attributed to their traffic in old clothes. The House would compare that fact with the arguments of the hon. member for Westminster, who seemed to consider it impossible that bales of goods could communicate it. As to the fanciful line which prevented the march of the disease into Upper Egypt, it had been his fortune to see that violated also. The line itself was purely imaginary; and the fact had no foundation but that of Mahometan superstition. The people of that religion asserted, and believed, that the plague could not pass beyond the latitude of Mecca; because that was the city of their prophet. Now, when he was making his way through Upper Egypt, the plague was raging as far south as Mocha, though that was a circumstance which had not been known before within the memory of man. The plague prevailed at Alexandria while he was there. A surgeon with whom he was acquainted disbelieved the theory of contagion, and went among the patients in the hospital. He did not then take the infection, but wishing to push his experiments to the utmost, he got into a bed which had been occupied by one who had the infection. He did then become infected, and he died in consequence. General opinion, however, attributed the disease to atmospheric influence.

Sir Robert Wilson

said, that when he went to Egypt, the impression on his mind was, that the plague was contagious; but he was soon satisfied of the contrary. When he was in Egypt, the army formed two divisions. The one which was stationed at Alexandria took the plague; the other, which was generally in motion, was not touched with it. The difference was attributed to atmospheric influence. The Turks had no hesitation in entering the infected places. The bodies of those who died of the plague were buried in their clothes, and were generally dug up and stripped by those who had less fear of the consequences. The moving division of the British army passed through villages infected with the plague, without being touched with it. Still, it was not the business of government to attempt to force public opinion upon a subject of this nature. They ought rather to endeavour to soothe apprehensions, however ill-grounded. He would, however, strongly recommend, that the officers appointed to enforce the Quarantine laws, should be placed under regulations which would entirely divest them of any suspicion of being actuated by interested motives in their conduct.

Mr. Secretary Peel

observed, that the subject was one involved in great doubts. He did not distinctly understand what was the theory which the gallant general drew from the facts he had stated. Of the two divisions of the army, of which the gallant general had spoken, one was stationary and affected by the plague; the other in motion and not so. But, as the latter passed through villages infected with the plague, how was it if, as the gallant general said, the state of the atmosphere caused the plague, that the soldiers escaped?

Sir R. Wilson

replied, that it appeared to be one of the extraordinary phenomena of this disease, that persons who remained stationary were liable to it, and that those who passed rapidly through various currents of air escaped it.

Mr. Hume

observed, that the principles of the Quarantine laws appeared to be very incorrect. Further inquiry seemed indispensable. The opinions of medical men differed exceedingly on the subject; but he would certainly prefer the opinions of those who had visited the countries in which the plague occasionally showed itself.

The bill was then read the second time.—The House adjourned to the 14th of April.