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Making History
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Listen to this editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
Gaol fever - typhus or typhoid?

Listener's query
"What exactly was gaol fever?"

Brief summary
From mediaeval times onwards, prisons and ships were so frequently swept by disease that the disease itself was known as gaol fever. The Norman Cross Prisoner of War Depot near Peterborough was built to take French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. It was hit by gaol fever and more than a thousand prisoners died.

Typhus and typhoid fever were two diseases which the Victorians tended to confuse and use interchangeably, certainly in fictional writing. So what is the difference between typhus and typhoid, and which of them - if either - was what came to be known as 'gaol fever'?

The answer is that gaol fever was typhus, a disease caused by bacteria spreading through the bites of lice and fleas. The infection causes headache, fever and a rash of red spots. It arrived in Europe in the 15th century, and there was a fearful epidemic in 1557-59.

Typhoid, on the other hand, is spread by consuming contaminated food or water and is not unrelated to salmonella.

Expert consulted
Professor Philip Stott of London University

Further reading
Roy Porter, Disease, Medicine and Society in England, 1550-1860 (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
Frederick Cartwright and Michael Biddiss, Disease and History (Sutton Publishing, 2004)

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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

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Send your comments and questions for future programmes to:
Making History
BBC Radio 4
PO Box 3096 Brighton

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Or telephone the Audience Line 08700 100 400

Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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