One of Liverpool’s most famous nightclubs is situated in a building that was the birthplace of a man who became the first Medical Officer for Health, saving thousands of lives with his analysis of where problems occurred.
William Henry Duncan was born to Scottish parents at what is now the Blue Angel nightclub in Seel Street on 27th January 1805. His mother’s brother was Dr James Currie, who after qualifying in Glasgow came to Liverpool where he became renowned for his treatment of fevers. Currie had finished practising in Liverpool in 1804 due to ill health and died in Sidmouth, Kent the August after Duncan was born.
After qualifying as a doctor in Edinburgh, Duncan returned to Liverpool and set up a general practice, living at 54 Rodney Street. In 1846 the passing of the Liverpool Sanitary Act led to his appointment as the town’s Medical Officer of Health. This was the first post of its kind in the country, London not following suit until the mid 1850s. Duncan had the unanimous backing of the Health Committee due to his perseverance in making public bodies aware of the importance of sanitation and he had no hesitation in taking up their invitation. The position was a part time one, with a ‘quiddamm honorarium’ of £300 a year being paid, meaning he could continue his private practice and consultancy roles with the Infirmary and dispensaries.
The Liverpool Mercury newspaper welcomed the move, saying it was an appointment ‘that does credit to the council’ however the Government took a different view. In February Home Secretary Sir George Grey wrote to the Town Clerk expressing his opinion that a full time role would have been better, something that the Mercury disagreed with. They commented on the 26th of that month: ‘We think that the Council are right in not creating an office of £1,000 a year in such a case until the experience of a year or two had proved if there was such a necessity for this step. It is impossible to foresee in so new a case either the extent or value of the required medical service.’
One new post that was permanent was that of James Newlands, who became Borough Engineer on 26th January. Like Duncan’s, his appointment was a pre-emptive one, as it was known that the forthcoming Public Health Act would make it a statutory requirement for local councils to take control of drainage and sewerage. Newlands beat off 62 other applicants to get appointed on a salary of £700 a year as well as use of a horse and cart.
Duncan set about his task keenly, advising the Health Committee in March of ways to combat typhoid fever. He recommended more frequent litter collections, the washing of walls with quick lime, and that clothes of infected people be taken to wash-houses. Perhaps controversially, he also suggested that the steamship fares between Liverpool and Dublin be raised to try and deter more Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine from causing further overcrowding.
Duncan used facts and figures to show how there were sometimes misconceptions about diseases. It was generally assumed that more people died in winter, but a chart produced by Duncan in September showed that 320 people had died prematurely in August compared to just 140 in January. The recommendations he had made the previous year with respect to hygiene quickly paid off, with 1907 dying of disease in the second quarter of 1848 compared to 4809 in the corresponding period the previous year. This more than justified the decision that had been taken in January 1848 to give Duncan £750 per year to devote all his time to the Corporation and give up his private practice.
During the next fifteen years as Liverpool grew rapidly and the area around Scotland Road became one of the most densely populated in Europe, Duncan rose to the challenge and reported on problems, certified places that needed washing with lime, and advised the council. He showed the link between the common water taps and cases of cholera in 1854, although he didn’t go as far as his contemporary in London, Dr Snow who advised that drinking beer was the best way to avoid cholera as the fermentation killed the bacteria. Instead he continued working closely with Newlands to identify the areas where sanitation needed improving, using figures he had collated on disease to justify the need for drainage and sewerage improvements.
In 1863, after devoting so much time to saving others, Duncan’s own health was failing and he was unable to perform his duties, Dr Cameron standing in for him. There was no immediate cause for concern though when he visited relatives in Elgin in May. However he died suddenly on Saturday 23rd May and Dr William Stewart Trench was appointed as his successor.
Dr Duncan’s legacy lives in today with a pub (opened by Cains in 1999) named after him in St John’s Lane, while there are also plaques commemorating him at 54 Rodney Street and at the Blue Angel.