Trial By Error: New Study Reports First-Hand Accounts Of 1955 Hospital Outbreak

David Tuller

 

By David Tuller, DrPH

The name myalgic encephalomyelitis is inextricably linked with an outbreak of what appeared by all accounts to be a viral illness at London’s Royal Free Hospital in the second half of 1955. More than 200 people, most of them female staff and students, fell ill. Some reported long-term complications. Although no pathogen was ever identified, key investigators at the time believed it was possibly or likely an enterovirus.

After the outbreak, investigators assigned the name “benign myalgic encephalomyelitis” to the observed clinical entity. Some of the controversy over the term has focused on whether those with the illness actually experience “encephalomyelitis”—that is, inflammation of the brain and central nervous system. (Such inflammation could perhaps explain much of the reported symptomology of the illness, but evidence for its presence remains inconclusive.)

 

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