Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Looking after Tom Brown: the former experience of infectious disease in Britain’s public schools
  1. Philip Mortimer
  1. Retired, Greens Norton, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Philip Mortimer, Greens Norton, NN12 8BG, UK; pandjmortimer{at}

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


Britain’s Victorian so-called public schools were mostly boarding establishments and were representative of semienclosed communities in which infectious diseases presented as discrete outbreaks rather than constantly occurring. These schools had often originated through local charitable endowment, but by the 19th century some had acquired a wider reputation and become more socially exclusive. By the midcentury, they had also been modified through the influence of Thomas Arnold, headmaster, Rugby School (1828–1841) and his disciples. Thenceforth, most well-to-do families favoured them for their boys’ education, and they grew in number and size to become communities of several hundred and more preadolescents to postadolescents.

Initially, outbreaks of infection in these schools seem to have been regarded as Acts of God. The diseases were those affecting the general population, but they tended to present epidemically and when they did the schools were not well equipped to respond.

Eventually, though, ways were found to deal with such outbreaks, and these exemplify in microcosm the improvements that have since been made in managing children’s diseases throughout the developed world. Outbreaks are now largely confined to families who are opposed in principle to immunisation, or have a casual approach to immunisation schedules, or have come from countries where childhood immunisation is not routine.

Figure 1

Chapter VI of Tom Brown’s School days describes ‘Fever at the school’. Thompson dies of it and Tom’s worthy friend Arthur ‘is reported worse each day’; but eventually recovers.

The unreformed public school

Early boarding schools were unhealthy places. In 1825, the headmaster of Eton College was among several masters and boys who contracted typhus.1 The same year, when the widowed Rev Patrick Bronte dispatched four of his five girls to The Clergy Daughters’ School, two, Maria and Elizabeth, were within months sent home to die, probably of tuberculosis.2 In 1832, Rugby School was temporarily closed …

View Full Text


  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.