Dr Norman and Beri-beri

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Dr Conolly Norman reviewed the issue of beri-beri in asylums in 1899. He pointed out that following the outbreak in the Richmond Asylum, others had occurred in Suffolk, England, Alabama and Arkansas in the USA, and at St. Gemmes-sur-Loire in France. Norman remained puzzled as to the possible causes: sometimes there seemed to be an association with nutrition but he thought that the Richmond diet was quite as good as in other asylums.

He wondered about a ‘miasmatic poison’ especially in conditions where the ground was damp and marshy, and subject to frequent excavation as was common with asylums. (He is probably thinking here of the frequent building works, probably on top of human waste and, indeed, buried corpses.)

He decided that ‘infective peripheral neuritis’ would be an appropriate term, and that at least asylum doctors needed to be aware of the problem even if the cause and treatment were unknown.

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‘Dracula’ and Diet: Beri-beri in the Asylum

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The British Medical Journal reported on a ‘supposed outbreak of beri-beri’ in the Richmond Asylum, Dublin in 1894. This was remarkable, because previously such a disease had mainly been seen in the East.

The first noticeable symptom was oedema of the legs, which tended to spread rapidly. This was followed by weakness of the heart and breathing difficulties. Mentally, the sufferers became dull and sleepy. Sometimes there were symptoms of hyperaesthesia or paralysis. At this point there had been 110 cases under treatment, and 13 deaths.

Dr Conolly Norman, the medical superintendent, called for outside help, and the eminent Dublin surgeon Dr Thornley Stoker (Bram Stoker’s brother) led an investigation and provided a report to the governors. The disease appeared to resemble the beri-beri known in tropical and sub-tropical regions but the cause was unknown, although it seemed as if the cause must lie within the boundaries of the asylum. They concluded:

Bad ventilation and bad blood appear to be promoters, but the bacillary origin does not appear to be yet established.

The BMJ noted later that ‘blood’ had been a misprint for ‘food’.