Public Health Report
This report provides a graphic illustration of the initial difficulties faced by those who were attempting to deal with the fever epidemics which swept the country during the famine years.
There were twelve fever hospitals, both temporary and permanent, operating in County Wicklow during the Famine. Wicklow town had two; the County Infirmary which dated back to 1766 had a capacity for 30 inmates, 20 male and 10 female; the Fever Hospital which had been established in 1836 had a capacity for twenty eight patients. At the time of Stephens’ visit it had 61 patients. In the ten years from 1841 – 1851 the hospital admitted 2293 patients of whom 143 died in the hospital. Overall in the county’s twelve fever hospitals there were 656 deaths in the period 1841 -51. The total number of deaths from fever in the county in this period was 2172.
5 July 1846
I have the honour to state for the information of the Central Board of Health that in compliance with their orders I proceeded to this town and immediately after my arrival yesterday evening I put myself in communication with Dr. Nolan and Rev. Mr. O’Sullivan and without delay visited the fever hospital, the circumstances connected with which I have now to entrust to the consideration of the Commissioners.
Upon entering the house I found the hall covered with straw which I was informed was intended to answer the purposes of two beds, on one portion of which I perceived two females of the ages of seventeen and twenty years lying, as it appeared, convalescent from fever. The other portion I was told was the bed of the assistant nurse for which there was no token, nor any material to contain the straw. I found that there were no bedclothes nor any covering for her and that she should remain in the same clothes in which she had been during the day.
In the next ward I visited there were fifteen [indecipherable (making four?)] beds with two persons in each, two being on the floor. In another ward there were five bedsteads and two beds on the ?oor, two beds with three cases in each, two with two cases.
On the lobby I found seven portions of straw as beds for nine patients with the most scanty covering upon them, some with a blanket or a portion of one, others with merely an old rag, and some with their own miserable clothes placed over them; the ?oor was scarcely passable. Another ward had fourteen cases in nine beds, this had been intended for only seven cases.
The air of the wards was most offensive and scarcely tolerable; the clothing of the patients generally not having been changed during the course of their disease. I understand that no washing could be done from want of servants there being in the house but two nurses for sixty one patients the number contained in it at the time of my visit…
…I this day visited the cases of fever in the town which I found to be but four. In the village of Rathnew, three miles distant, I saw nine cases of fever much indeed in want of hospital accommodation . There is another district in which fever is said to be which I propose visiting tomorrow in consequence of which I fear I shall not be in Dublin until Tuesday.
Being obliged to draw up this report in a great hurry to be in time for the post, which is just about to leave, wishing it to be before the Board at their meeting tomorrow I have to entreat their favourable reception of it with the imperfections it presents caused by want of sufficient time for the preparation of it.
I have the honour to be
Your most obedient humble servant,
On foot of Dr. Stephens’ report it was decided to appoint Dr. William Nolan of Wicklow as a Medical Officer of Rathdrum Union. He was instructed to requisition the Board of Guardians of Rathdrum Union to provide hospital and dispensary accommodation in the town of Wicklow for patients afflicted with fever.