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Treatment of military cases of cerebrospinal fever during WWI: the concerted efforts of the RAMC, MRC and Lister Institute to make serum therapy work


Cerebrospinal fever was rare in the British Army prior to World War I. An outbreak of the disease on Salisbury Plain in late 1914 posed new challenges. The War Office established the Central Cerebrospinal Fever Laboratory at the Royal Army Medical (RAM) College early in 1915 to conduct research, develop diagnostic tests and coordinate the military response. The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) set up dedicated cerebrospinal wards for the hospitalisation and treatment of patients. The new Medical Research Committee (MRC) supported bacteriological studies of epidemic strains of the meningococcus responsible for the outbreak. The Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, an independent research institution, acted as a key supplier of antimeningococcus serum. The mortality of military patients during 1915 was poor because the testing infrastructure was still developing, the RAMC had limited experience of treating cases, and the therapeutic serums available at the time seemed ineffective. The survival rate of home troops improved during the war—through the concerted efforts of the RAMC, MRC and Lister Institute—due to timely diagnosis, and early, intensive and prolonged treatment with improved serums. The Official History of the War highlights subsequent trials undertaken with strain-specific MRC serums in late 1918 and 1919 but fails to acknowledge that in late 1917/early 1918 the Lister Institute supplied the RAM College with large quantities of an efficacious multivalent serum and corresponding monovalent serums that were not included in a formal trial.

  • medical history
  • therapeutics
  • infectious diseases
  • bacteriology
  • immunology

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