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The danger of whooping cough


Meningitis, the great killer
Harold Lambert Physician
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[Q] Was meningitis something that you, you found yourself working with because it was just so much a, a feature of, of a fever physician's life or... did you find a...

It, it wasn't so hugely common. One of the chap who came to work with me from Thailand, he did a study of about 10 years of meningitis, and I think it was about just under 300 patients. It wasn't... maybe like 30 a year, it wasn't... and some of them were viruses, so it wasn't so incredibly, but I did find it very taxing and you were always so terribly worried about the risk of neurological damage and...

[Q] Yes, and the speed with which people can go off.

Speed, speed. Oh, terrifying, terrifying. Meningococcal septicaemia kills people faster than haemorrhagic smallpox.

[Q] Yes, yes.


[Q] I remember running with you down the corridor.

Do you, really?

[Q] My first case, case of...


[Q] I remember thinking this is very interesting. I don't think I'd run with a physician before except to a cardiac arrest.

Really? I don't remember that. How extraordinary.

[Q] But we... but we needed to run because the patient was beginning to get sicker in front of our eyes.

Yeah, we... felt ourselves extremely lucky to have got somebody round then. Now it's all intensive care stuff, complicated management. When I realised the circulatory side was a bit... getting too hard for me, I used to call in... long before intensive care units, which Tony Dornhorst said in his sardonic way, 'We're more intensive than careful', a... chap called Brian Robinson, I don't know if you remember him. He was a card-carrying cardiologist, but more interested, too, circulatory issues, and I used to ring him up at home. He would come in and we'd work together with this patient, trying to, I haven't got figures, anyway, you were jolly lucky to get away with it. That's the septicaemic end. Meningitis, pneumococcal meningitis was the great dreadful one. If a person had meningitis, but not septicaemia from meningococcal you really felt you should be able to get away with it.

British doctor Harold Lambert (1926-2017) spent his career tackling infectious diseases, helping in the development of pyrazinamide as an effective treatment for tuberculosis. He also published work on the rational use of antibiotics and was a trustee and medical advisor for the Meningitis Research Foundation.

Listeners: Roger Higgs

Roger Higgs was an inner city GP for 30 years in south London, UK, and is Emeritus Professor of General Practice at Kings College London, where he set up the department.

He gained scholarships in classics at Cambridge but changed to medicine after a period of voluntary work in Kenya in 1962. He was Harold Lambert's registrar for 18 months in the early 1970s, the most influential and exciting episode in his hospital training. He set up his own practice in 1975. He helped to establish medical ethics as a practical and academic subject through teaching, writing and broadcasting, and jointly set up the 'Journal of Medical Ethics' in 1975.

His other work included studies in whole person assessment and narrative in general practice and development work in primary medical care: innovations here included intermediate care centres, primary care assessment in accident and emergency departments, teaching internal medicine in general practice and establishing counselling services in medicine.

He was made MBE in 1987 for this development work and now combines bioethics governance, teaching and writing with an arts based retirement.

Tags: Thailand, Brian Robinson, Tony Dornhoff

Duration: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008