Incidents and case studies ashore 11 - Prevalence and eradication of tuberculosis in the Navy 1950s

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Peter Okey Chatham 1950sPeter Okey

Service: 1953 - 1979

Rate: Sick Berth Attendant

Peter joined the Royal Navy in 1953 having been an apprentice Dental Technician before joining as a Sick Berth Attendant (SBA) to complete National Service. He ended up serving for 26 years both in the United Kingdom and abroad. He served in Royal Naval Hospitals in Portsmouth, Chatham and Plymouth and spent two and a half years as the lone SBA onboard HMS Zest.


Find out why tuberculosis was common in the Navy and how it was treated.


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Extract Text (Duration 2.01)

P Okey: The Navy was an ideal breeding ground, although perhaps they wouldn't like to have thought of it as that, but people slept in close proximity in hammocks onboard ship, etc., and perhaps hot and humid conditions, and just right for TB. Hmmm, TB was certainly prevalent in the Navy and there were whole wards given over to the nursing of tuberculosis. And they were referred to as open and closed TB. The open TB was supposed to be far more virulent and infectious than closed TB. Hmmm.

Interviewer: So what's the difference between the two? Open and closed TB?

P Okey: Well I think one had, hmmm... you were... the patients were coughing up the TB germs, which the horror of it is they can live just about forever, the germ is contained in a waxy substance and you can sweep it up off the floor a hundred years later I'm told. Then of course there was the operations and they were the most... they were quite horrific, again we saw one or two of these in the course of our training. Removing a lung for example, they used to do a lot of that, removing either part of a lung or the whole of it, and filling the chest cavity up with things that were like table tennis balls. So it was all pretty horrendous stuff, and then I was in at the advent of streptomycin really and a drug called para-aminosalicylic acid and this stopped... this stopped tuberculosis in its tracks really.

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