Storyline – outbreak in Wales

EARLY IN 1962, a killer disease was on the loose in Wales. People were gripped by fear and hundreds of thousands demanded vaccination. Week by week, as the disease spread, the death toll mounted.

Mystery still surrounds many aspects of the story – especially how it was spread. One doctor played a vital – and secret – role. Buried in official files is evidence that elderly mental patients were treated with an experimental drug, tested only on mice.

Cardiff central station – photo: ITV Wales

On 13 January 1962 a man called Shuka Mia arrived in Cardiff on a train from Birmingham. He’d flown into Britain the day before on a plane from Pakistan, where a smallpox epidemic claimed hundreds of lives that winter. Though he carried a vaccination certificate, he brought the deadly virus to Wales.

There were very few people in Wales who knew how to combat smallpox. One of them was Prof. John Pathy, whose key role in the smallpox outbreak was never revealed at the time.

On that day in 1962, the traveller – and the virus – made their way through the centre of Cardiff to the place where he’d arranged to stay. The disease he was carrying was one of the most horrific known to man. Although it has now been eradicated, in 1962 it was still rife in many parts of the world.

A day after he arrived at the Calcutta Restaurant in Bridge Street, a GP (Dr White) was called to see Shuka Mia who was in bed upstairs. He suspected smallpox. The patient was taken to the Lansdowne isolation hospital, where John Pathy saw him the next morning and confirmed the diagnosis.

As the news broke that smallpox was in the city, a desperate search began for anyone who may have been in contact with the carrier. The patient was sent to the top of a mountain above the Rhondda where he was shut away from the outside world. All that remains of the Penrhys smallpox hospital on its windswept hilltop are the high walls which surrounded it. But during the crisis of 1962, 12 patients were isolated there as doctors fought to control the outbreak.

In Cardiff it was decided to vaccinate anyone who might have been in contact with Shuka Mia – either in the city or on the train that brought him to Wales. But thousands of people demanded vaccination and sometimes tempers flared. Over the next few weeks, 900,000 people in Wales were vaccinated against smallpox. Extra supplies of vaccine were brought in from as far away as Argentina.

Whether through luck or planning, Cardiff escaped the threat of smallpox. There were no new cases – and the authorities were confident they had traced all Shuka Mia’s contacts.

START OF THE REAL CRISIS

Robert Hodkinson – photo: ITV Wales

For more than a month it seemed the smallpox scare was over. Then, out of the blue, a consultant at East Glamorgan Hospital became seriously ill (25 February). The mysterious case of Dr Robert Hodkinson marked the real beginning of the 1962 crisis. Bob Hodkinson knew that, somehow, he had contracted smallpox. Alone among the medical staff at East Glamorgan, Bob Hodkinson had not been revaccinated after the Cardiff scare. Next day, the diagnosis was confirmed.

Staff at the the isolation hospital on Penrhys mountain were told to expect the transfer of a patient from East Glamorgan. But they mystery was: how had the consultant caught the disease? The trail led to the operating theatre and a patient who had died of a mysterious illness two weeks earlier – before she could be operated on. Dr Hodkinson had attended the post mortem examination.

The young woman had gone to her mother’s home in Maerdy at the top of the Rhondda Fach to have her second baby – but became seriously ill after miscarrying on February 8. Only when Dr Hodkinson was diagnosed with smallpox was it suspected that she may have died of the virus.

After she died, the woman’s body was taken to her sister’s house in Ferndale, where it lay in an open coffin for six days while relatives and friends paid their respects. She was buried in the nearby cemetery a week before Dr Hodkinson became ill. Several of her relatives and neighbours caught the disease – and her sister died.

 OUTBREAK IN RHONDDA

Now it was the Rhondda’s turn to panic. Five cases were identified and a massive hunt for contacts began. Health Inspectors worked day and night to hunt down smallpox contacts. As doctors struggled to vaccinate the entire population of the two valleys, there were even calls from outside for the Rhondda Valleys to be isolated.

But how had the virus got into the Rhondda? At the time the first victim must have been infected, the only known smallpox case was in hospital on top of the hill above her home – but there was no evidence that she’d ever had any contact with him. The official report suggests the virus may have been carried to her home on the air. But was there a missing connection between the Rhondda and Shuka Mia when he was in Cardiff? Prof John Pathy believed there was – a visitor to Shuka Mia when he was ill in a room above the Calcutta Restaurant.

On March 6, Dr Robert Hodkinson died. His body was taken, under police escort – to Glyntaff crematorium in Pontypridd. The brief service was conducted in the open air because of the fear of infection. That day, it was reported that Shuka Mia had been discharged – cured of the disease which he had brought to Wales.

The outbreak in the Rhondda area continued until 13 March – and eventually claimed six lives. But by the end of the month, the epidemic seemed under control. The newspaper reported that no more cases were expected and the all clear was near.

 DEATHS IN HOSPITAL

Glanrhyd Hospital – photo: ITV Wales

However, the worst was yet to come. On 6 April, eight patients at Glanrhyd Mental Hospital near Bridgend were diagnosed with Smallpox. One died that night. Many of its patients came from the Rhondda area and in March 1962 the authorities began a programme of vaccination within the hospital.

As preparations were made to transfer the infected patients to an isolation hospital, emergency measures were taken at Glanrhyd. The infected ward was sealed off and the staff were re-vaccinated . The hospital records show that only eight of the 45 elderly women on the ward had been vaccinated.

At Blackmill isolation hospital, four miles away, nursing staff who’d just been released after monitoring contacts from the Rhondda volunteered to go back in and nurse the patients from Glanrhyd.

In the first week, 12 patients from Glanrhyd died. For the nursing staff, it became a race against time – they had to go fifteen clear days to be sure no other patient had fallen victim to the virus. In his secret role as smallpox consultant, John Pathy drove almost daily to visit the patients and staff confined in Blackmill hospital.

But how had the virus got into Glanrhyd? The search for a carrier drew a blank. The official report suggests it may have been carried on the air from Heddfan hospital, three quarters of a mile away, where some of the Rhondda cases had been isolated.

GUINEA PIGS

No effective treatment for smallpox has ever been developed, but the hospital files revealed another remarkable fact. Supplies of an experimental drug were sent to Wales by the Wellcome Foundation and used on the patients from Glanrhyd. It had only been tested on mice, but the manufacturers said it was worth trying if patients seemed almost certain to die.

The hospital at Penrhys – where Shuka Mia had been isolated and Dr Hodkinson had died – was destroyed when the outbreak was a thing of the past. Fire consumed any remaining traces of the virus which had plagued Wales in the spring of 1962. All that now remains are the walls around the site.

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27 thoughts on “Storyline – outbreak in Wales

  1. The seaman was originally diagnosed by Dr White, Butetown Health Centre. There were some very old records in an upstairs cupboard relating to whalemeat imports. There could be more, I didn’t examine them thoroughly. Try the records of the Port Health Officer – I can’t remember his official title. His name was John (now deceased), he was based at Butetown and I know he remembered the incident. He may have written something down, it’s worth a try.The Port Health Authority might have the records or know where they are. I worked there 1983 – 1997, I remember talking to him about it incident, and about the very real fear that people felt. I am from Maesteg, which is near Glanrhyd and I was vaccinated during the panic. I remember the queues outside doctors’ surgeries.

  2. I remember this very well as I was an apprentice motor fitter in the old Rhondda Transport Bus Company and we had a few buses off the because of it. My name is Trevor Thomas and there was some one from Tonyrefail with the same name and he had virus but I don’t remember if he died as well. The funny thing is I now live in Tonyrefail and I was 18 years old in 1962 so I do really remember it well.

    • Hello Trevor,
      I am helping my 10 year old son research his family history. My husband, Trevor Jones was named after his father’s cousin’s husband, Trevor Thomas. Trevor Thomas was married to Anne Thomas who was a district nurse in Tonyrefail. Trevor Thomas drove her around so she could administer vaccinations. Unfortunately he contracted small pox and died.I wonder it this is the same Trevor Thomas?
      Juliet Jones

      • The Trevor Thomas who died was 49 years old and lived in School Street, Tonyrefail. James Stewart

  3. My dad Gordon White who is 88 worked in the gelatine factory of Leiners on the Trefforest industrial estate. One of his work mates ( not sure of his surname ) Malcolm, a chap in his twenties contracted the disease, As soon as my dad knew, he, my mother and brother and sister went to the clinic in Pontypridd park to get vaccinated, I was 15 and can remember queuing on the Broadway in Trefforest at our doctor’s practice – Dr Fudge. Malcolm returned to work, with an extremely marked face.

  4. My father, Ray Richards, was at the time working in Simmonds Aerocessories on the Treforest Trading estate (as it was called then). I believe someone working there was a contact, so all the workers were vaccinated about the end of March 1962. Unfortunately my father had vaccine fever and was very ill. On April 6th he had a heart attack and died. I believe if he had not had the vaccination he would not have had a heart attack. He was only 55 years old.

  5. My father was an ambulance driver and had carried some of the patients who had been in contact with Dr Hodkinson and also the Dr himself. We had to have the vaccination as a precaution and I know my parents were very worried. I was 15 at the time and wasn’t allowed to go to school, my father stayed at home from work and my mother didn’t go shopping until we had been given the all clear. Both my parents are now deceased so unfortunately no more information is possible.

  6. I would like to say my name is Hayden Thomas of Tonyrefail, and Trevor Thomas was my Uncle. He was transporting my Aunt Annie to all the patients who had been in contact with people who had picked up the disease. I remember at that time I was working nights in Coedely Colliery. At 6 o’clock on my way home, I was stopped by two doctors who asked if I had been in contact with my uncle. I said yes and they then vaccinated me in their car. After the vaccination I was not allowed to go near School Street [where Trevor Thomas, who died of smallpox, lived].

  7. I was 12 at the time and living in Wattsville near Crosskeys. I can remember being vaccinated at the doctor’s surgery, though why we were vaccinated, I dont know. as we were far away from Rhondda. Susan.

  8. My Father, Dr John White, was the GP who suspected that Shuka Mia had smallpox. He was in practice with my grandfather Dr A.H. Mitchell and my mother Dr. I.F.A. White and Dr. D.Milward in a surgery on James Street, Butetown.

    My father was called out to the Calcutta Café on a normal call, after he had visited Shuka Mia he went home and discussed the symptoms with my mother, she said that if there was any doubt the patient had to be isolated and so dad returned to the Café and arranged for the patient to be taken to Lansdowne Isolation Hospital. Afterwards he called back at the James St. surgery and described the symptoms to my grandfather. As dad described the symptoms my grandfather went to the fridge, got out a smallpox vaccine and injected himself whilst my father was talking. My grandfather had studied at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and had practiced in Kenya, so he knew exactly what they were facing.

    From my perspective as an 8 year old, at the time, two things stand out.

    My birthday had been earlier that week and a party had been arranged for the Tuesday evening after school. Invitations had been sent out and RSVP’s gathered, anticipation was high. However early that afternoon the school received a call; my party was off! Brightly wrapped presents were handed over and most of my friends went home with their parents, but some parents could not be contacted and so four of us set off in my father’s car for home. The party went ahead as planned with the additional inconvenience of us having to drop our shorts and be vaccinated before the festivities could commence. At least some of my friends were amongst the first to be protected against the disease.

    My parents operated their GP surgery from our home in Llandaff, the house was on a corner and patients came in through a side door at the rear of the house. However immediately after the announcement of smallpox the demand for vaccination was so high that a one-way system had to be instituted with patients queuing down the side of the house and out onto Cardiff Road. My mother was set up in the surgery and my father in the kitchen, vaccinating as many people as they could. One stream of patients went out through the front door and the other through the kitchen and out via the back door.

    Vaccination sessions in the James Street surgery were conducted with my father and Dr. Milward sitting back-to-back on dining chairs vaccinating twin lines of school children. These vaccines were the scratch rather than the older injection based ones, so my father would say “You’re going to feel a little scratch like a cat” then he’d say “Meow” as he gave the inoculation. After they had done a few hundred each an exasperated Dr. Milward said to my father “If I have to hear you go “meow” one more time, I’m going home!

  9. I was very ill after the smallpox vaccination so too was my father – I was just 13 and I remember our doctor was quite concerned about our reaction to the vaccine – but it was excellent to protect so many from the virus, the outbreak could have been worse. The BBC ‘Indian Doctor’ has been excellent in reminding us of the terrible event … with a little comedy too!

  10. I and my family lived at 56 Sunnyhill, Maerdy (though the whole area has now gone!) and remember this incident very well. I will never forget we were playing outside (in the snow) and a very tall man in a very grey suit came up and asked which house the ill people were in. We pointed down to 60 and 61 but told him he shouldn’t go in there because it was ‘catching’. He said ‘I’ll be OK because I’m a doctor’. I now wonder who he was?

    • Hi Keith I was there too in Sunnyhill…I lived in number 42… Lynette Jones…I remember us all being vaccinated in the church hall…very scarey at the time.

  11. I remember having to have the injection against smallpox, as I was to be bridesmaid at my best friend’s wedding. Her husband-to-be and his family came from Abertillery and surrounding areas and it was suggested that we all got vaccinated. I can remember reading the papers at the time saying how serious it was, and being 17-years-old at the time was very worried. I am pleased to say the wedding went off fine, and since I was vaccinated as a baby against smallpox had no side effects that some people had.

  12. I was 6 in 1962. My father, Dennis Buckley was a bus conductor working for the Rhondda Transport. As a result of his occupation our family were one of the first to have the vaccination in the clinic in Talbot Green and I was shown having my injection on the BBC news that evening. (It must be in the archives somewhere.) I remember it as a very worrying time. I remember my father fried eggs on the stove and the fat splashed up his arm. That evening he noticed the little marks on his arm and by bedtime had convinced himself that it was the start of the disease. He didn’t sleep that night and it took all my mother’s powers of persuasion to convince him it was the fat splash and not smallpox!

  13. Remember it very well as I worked with Dennis and his son Mike but I don’t think Mike had started there then.

  14. I too remember this incident well being in my mid teens at the time. My name is Carrine and I was living with my family in Bryntirion, Bridgend, taking public transport to school in Newton, Porthcawl. I have a clear memory of queing with my sister and all of my cousins at what is now Riversdale practice to have the vacination. I was the only one in my family to have a reaction and was very upset at having to miss my Uncle’s wedding a few days later. I bear the mark of the vacination site to this day. Prior to the vacination my parents kept me from school as the bus I would have travelled on would have originated in Pontypridd before travelling to Porthcawl. We did not know, at that time, that the disease was as close as Glanrhyd, where Mum had worked during the war, and Blackmill where one of Mum’s sisters was living. I do remember how anxious people were and how people avoided large gatherings. Information was not forthcoming, perhaps to avoid panic, but that only led to speculation and misinformation being rife. Thankfully, through the dedication of the health professionals the crisis was contained and eventually passed. God willing we won’t be put to a similar test in my life time.

  15. I was 11 in 1962 and my mother was a nurse at Glanrhyd and worked nights. We also had a lodger who was also a nurse at Glanrhyd. One morning my mother did not return from work before we were due to go to school, and instead a policeman knocked at the door (we did not have a phone). He said that my mother along with other staff had been quarantined and could not come home! However, she was later released.
    Our lodger Mary, an Irish nurse, volunteered to look after those patients with smallpox and stayed there for weeks.
    Quite stringent precautions were taken to prevent further spread of the disease and we were well aware of these later.

  16. I was six years old at the time and living in Aberdare, just over the mountain from Maerdy and Ferndale. I can remember queuing at the clinic in the Rock Grounds Aberdare with my parents to be vaccinated. I was too young to be frightened and have only just learnt how close the outbreak was.

  17. My husband moved from Birmingham to Cwmbran in July 1961. We married in November and I moved to Cwmbran in January 1962. I remember the scare and remember going to a dance where all the girls had the vaccination marks on their arms. We have just watched Indian Doctor which brought it all back.

  18. At the time of the smallpox outbreak I was working as a theatre staff nurse at East Glamorgan hospital. I was on night duty and was informed that staff were being vaccinated because of the Cardiff outbreak. After vaccination a patient was admitted from Maerdy. She had just been delivered of a macerated foetus and had a retained placenta. Our obstetric consultant was on call, but could not be reached, so the senior obstetric registrar from Cardiff Royal came and removed the placenta after which the patient was transferred back to Casualty, where she later died. I was unwell, having a reaction to the vaccination, so was not on duty for the next two weeks. At that point a diagnosis of smallpox on that patient was confirmed, which meant I, my husband and two small children had to be vaccinated immediately. I heard that Mr. Hodkinson had attended the post mortem, and being unvaccinated, must have contracted the disease there. It was a horrendous time for everyone. As a result of my two vaccinations, I had mild encephalitis and a neuropathy and was unable to return to work for over a year. I was ill, but had I not been vaccinated would most probably have died.

    • What a horrible experience, so glad you recovered. I was just a little girl but can remember queuing at the clinic at Rock Grounds Aberdare for the vaccination.

  19. I remember it well. I was 13 and living in Pontypridd at the time. Due to the huge demand and scarcity of vaccine my father had some sent from Canada which was administered at home by our local doctor.

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