IT’S SAFE to say that the coronavirus has dominated the national agenda for some considerable time now.

Every day the ravages of covid-19 are splashed across newspapers, TV and online news.

And even now there is talk of a second wave with many towns and cities across the UK in local lockdown - and countries across the world adopting stricter measures in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.

However a retired senior nurse, Julie Bowman, has been looking through Cumbria’s history to see that covid-19 is far from the only disease to afflict the population.

She’s read about a number of deadly outbreaks that spread when little or nothing was known about disease control.

One was described by the eminent physician Dr John Heysham and was published in his Account of the Jail Fever at Carlisle in 1781.

Dr Heysham, a noted statistician, was born in Lancaster in 1753 but settled in Carlisle in 1778 and lived there until his death in 1834.

In an account of this life it states: “At the beginning of April 1781, there was an outbreak of typhus fever in Carlisle, resembling in character the jail-fever or typhus.

“This fever made its appearance in Rickergate, a suburban district on the north side, in a house which contained about half-a-dozen very poor families, the rooms were exceedingly small, and in order to diminish the window-tax, every window that even poverty could dispense with, was shut up, hence stagnation of air, which was rendered still more noxious by the filth and uncleanliness of the people.

“The disease prevailed amongst the common and lower ranks of people, and more especially those who lived in narrow, close, confined lanes, and in small crowded apartments.

“It continued for twelve months, and affected adults more frequently than children, the infirm than the robust, women than men and the married were more subject to it than the single.

“It often seized a whole family, and was worse in the suburbs than within the walls of the city.”

It infected 600 people - one in 11 of the city’s population - and killed 52.

Smallpox was also a scourge to the local population.

In 1779 for example he records in the last six months of the year 300 people suffered of which 90 died.

He also details a Whitehaven outbreak in 1783 which killed one in three of those it infected.

These are just an example of the diseases that residents at that time could succumb to, he lists many others, some with mysterious names such as worms fever, military fever, looseness and indigestion among others.

He was instrumental in establishing the city’s first dispensary for the poor which opened in the grounds of the Abbey.

It ran from 1782 and provided clinics for patients who had a “line” or recommendation from one of its patrons.

After a number of moves, and its closure between 1805 and 1809 it moved to a building on Chapel Street in the 1850s where it operated until the creation of the NHS in the 1940s.

Dr Heysham was a proponent of innoculations and recognised the importance of Dr Edward Jenner’s work in developing a smallpox vaccine.

He even vaccinated his daughter, Isabella, in 1800, when she was a month old to encourage others.

Julie, who spent more than 40 years at the Cumberland Infirmary, said: “It makes the coronavirus of today, not trivial but it certainly puts things in perspective and shows how lucky we are.

“There was an awful lot of fear as you would have things like the tolling of the death bell and the town cryer announcing people’s deaths and he went to the bishop to get it stopped.

“Until then the only other recourse the poor had if they were ill was the workhouse that is why he set up the dispensary, to try and help.

“He was a pioneer but also followed in the footsteps of Dr Jenner.

“Dr Heysham quantified everything in Carlisle and showed how disease spread and what needed to be done.

“However the poor did not have access to things like good hygiene - we still see that today with the coronavirus spreading among the less privileged of society.”

There were also various outbreaks in the 19th Century, for example from August 1832 an outbreak of Cholera killed 265 people according to the Proceedings of the Royal Society for Medicine.

The affliction is a bacterial disease usually spread through contaminated water.

Cholera causes severe diarrhea and dehydration and could kill people in hours.

The 20th Century was also no stranger to outbreaks as another set of diseases were to challenge the county’s medical profession.

For example, the Spanish Flu in 1918.

Some historians believe it killed upwards of 50 million people worldwide.

There was also surges of polio which is spread by a virus that affects people's spinal cords, causing paralysis.

An account of one polio outbreak during World War One was detailed by the Evening News and Star newspaper on October 5, 1982 - a doctor died in the outbreak and the rest lived in fear, not knowing how it spread.

Doctor Josephine Ewbank who worked in the Cumberland Infirmary at the time gave an account.

She said: “It was agony working at the hospital in those days because we did not know how polio spread.

“We used to spend all day tending victims then going home to our families.”

Julie said: “Before antibiotics there was high mortality rates for children.

“My grandmother, who lived in the Rickergate area during the 1920s lost two daughters, one was two and the other was three.

“One of them died of scarlet fever which was a serious childhood disease.

“I think in the end they demolished the homes in Rickergate because they were unfit, it was also happening elsewhere in the country as well, they were hovels with no sanitation.

“Children would die of the measles and things like tuberculosis were rife.

“We had a fever hospital here.”

The hospital which was adjacent to the Cumberland Infirmary was incorporated by it with the formation of the NHS in 1948.

According to Dr T McL Galloway who wrote A Short History of the Cumberland Infirmary there had also been a “Fever hospital” or “House of Recovery” that had been “provided as an act of charity in 1820 and situated in Collier’s Lane, where the Citadel now stands”.

The Cumberland Infirmary itself was opened to patients in 1841 and cost £8,356 to build, raised by public subscription.