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