This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

March 2004


9 March 1804:   Charles Foster Barham, Cornish physician and pioneer investigator of miners’ diseases, born.

This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Charles Foster Barham, one of the first medical men to focus on the diseases of miners in his native Cornwall. Born in Truro, he studied medicine at Edinburgh, and returned to Truro in 1837, where he set up a practice and remained for the rest of his life. At the relatively young age of 34, he was appointed Senior Physician at the Royal Cornwall Infirmary in Truro, which placed him in an excellent position to observe the health problems of Cornwall.

The exploitation of Cornwall’s mineral wealth in the nineteenth century came at a considerable human cost. For centuries tin had been mined in Cornwall, but mainly from surface placer deposits or "tin streams" that tinners worked much like the California ’49ers panning for gold. But by the late 1700s these placer deposits were mostly played out, just at a time when there was a revived worldwide demand for tin and copper. The solution was to pursue ore deposits ever deeper into the earth. But hard-rock mining brought its own set of problems, from an increased accident and deadly injury rate to a variety of health and environmental problems.

Interest in social conditions was just beginning to bud in Victorian Britain when in 1840 the newly formed Commission on the Employment of Children engaged Barham to investigate the working conditions of boys employed in Cornwall’s tin, copper, lead and zinc mines. Dr. Barham made a thorough investigation, which he contributed to the Commission’s voluminous First Report, published in 1842.

Dr. Barham gave particular attention to the medical problems afflicting boys who were employed in the mines at ages as young as ten, carrying out such tasks as hauling winches, removing waste rock, and sorting ore. Barham’s report detailed the effects of such early employment as reflected in stunted growth and reduced life expectancy. He was especially interested in the lung conditions brought about by poor ventilation in close working spaces underground.

Though the condition of silicosis had yet to be named, Barham noted the effects of continued inhalation of soot, explosive by-products, and "mineral-dust", especially the latter, which he noted when inhaled by the miner "gives a peculiar character to his expectoration," sometimes tinted green by copper ore. In addition he detailed elevated rates of tuberculosis, asthma, and heart disease among the boys and men in the mines of Cornwall. And years before the discovery of vitamin D, he noted the unhealthy effect of the lack of sunlight among those working underground eight to ten hours a day.

The year 1842 also saw the publication of the landmark Report on the Sanitary State of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, compiled by the social reformer Edwin Chadwick. As the project’s commissioner for Truro, Barham made a significant contribution to that report as well. The report came as something of a shock to the Victorian public, as it established, by meticulous collection of detail, the connection between dirt and disease, especially between sewerage and cholera.

What seems obvious to us was still something of a revelation back then: this was some twenty years before Louis Pasteur established the germ theory of disease, and the precise causes of such killers as cholera were largely unknown or only vaguely guessed at. Since cholera had been ravaging Britain for some ten years, this ensured that Chadwick’s Report got a level of attention seldom given to the work of social reformers, since disease reached beyond the hovels of the poor and into the wealthiest of homes (as indeed even Prince Albert would die of typhoid fever in 1862.) Sparking a nationwide interest in both urban and rural living conditions, the Report influenced such writers as Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, and Henry Mayhew, and led to a "sanitary movement" that began to address some of the worst features of Britain’s urban environmental degradation.

After being appointed for a term to head the follow-up work of the Commission of the Employment of Children, Dr. Barham continued to practice medicine in Truro, where he died on 20 October 1884.

For more information on Cornwall, see the Cornwall Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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