1955 Royal Free Hospital outbreak
In 1955, between July and November, 292 members of the medical, nursing, auxiliary medical, ancillary, and administrative staff fell ill, of which 255 were admitted to the hospital. The disease name myalgic encephalomyelitis was first coined to describe the illness in an editorial in the Lancet, in 1956.
Location[edit | edit source]
The outbreak occurred at the Royal Free Hospital, then situated at 256 Grays Inn Road, London, England, which is now the Eastman Dental Hospital. (The current Royal Free Hospital site is now in the Hampstead area of London.)
Onset[edit | edit source]
Symptoms[edit | edit source]
- Severe headache
- Pain in limbs
- Neck stiffness, neck pain
- Pain in back
- Myalgia, which in some patients caused them to cry out in pain, muscle weakness, cramps, twitching
- Abdominal pain
- Diplopia (double vision)
- Swollen lymph nodes
Usually by the second or third week of the disease, there was objective evidence of involvement of the central nervous system which appeared to be characteristic of the outbreak.
Signs[edit | edit source]
- Low-grade fever (tended to transiently occur with relapse of symptoms)
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Objective sensory impairment and muscle tenderness
- Extensor plantar responses
Findings[edit | edit source]
- Inconsistent or normal cerebrospinal fluid
- Electromyograms showed abnormalities of activity, but no evidence of lower motor neuron degeneration (12 of 25 abnormal).
- non-specific EEG abnormalities
- Neutropenia and abnormal lymphocytes, consistent with a viral infection
- normal or slightly elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate
- negative virology
- abnormally high lactic dehydrogenase and glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase
"Evidence of involvement of the sympathetic nervous system or actual hypothalamic damage was to be found in most cases. This often took the form of orthostatic tachycardia chilliness of the extremities with increased sensitivity to cold, circulatory impairment and hypothermia."
Epidemiology[edit | edit source]
Between July 13, 1955 and November 24, 1955, 292 people, of whom the vast majority were hospital personnel, became ill. Personnel from the medical, nursing, auxiliary medical, ancillary, and administrative departments were affected. Of these two hundred fifty-five were admitted to the hospital. Despite the hospital census being near capacity, only 12 patients were afflicted.
By October 5, 1955, the hospital had to close to new admissions contain the outbreak and because of the shortage of unaffected staff. The first to report ill were a resident doctor and a ward sister. More females became ill than males, but at the time it was believed to be because of the staff's living quarters not gender, as more females than males resided at the facility.
Similar cases had occurred in the population of North West London before this outbreak and sporadic cases continued to occur after the outbreak.
Prognosis[edit | edit source]
For many patients, symptoms waxed and waned in intensity over a long period. A very large majority had complete recovery of neurological function.
Long-term follow-up[edit | edit source]
A follow-up study 65 years later found that there was one group of patients that recovered completely or nearly completely, a second group that recovered but was subject to relapses, and a third that showed little or no recovery, these patients remaining incapacitated.
Another follow-up study in 2021 interviewed former hospital staff who were present during the outbreak, and reported on their recollection of patient symptoms and circumstances at the time. Twenty-seven former hospital staff were, including a few who developed ME. The accounts of the former staff were found to be inconsistent with the McEvedy and Beard hypothesis that the illness was psychosomatic in nature, caused by mass hysteria or psychoneurosis. Observable signs of physical illness reported by the former staff included enlarged posterior cervical glands, ptosis (drooping of the eyelids), hemiparesis (one-sided paralysis), some patients crying due to extreme muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. Patients typically delayed seeking medical treatment for the first few days, which is also inconsistent with patients overly anxious about the possibility of contracting an illness. Some patients had blood tests which found leukopenia, or lymphocytes typical of viruses. While some patients seemed to be neurotic and lacked physical signs, a large number of patients were seriously ill with significant physical signs, leading to most hospital staff at the time believing that the cause of illness was an infectious disease. Some patients remained hospitalized for over six months.
Notable studies and publications[edit | edit source]
- 2021, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Organic Disease or Psychosomatic Illness? A Re-Examination of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955
- 2020, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) outbreaks can be modelled as an infectious disease: a mathematical reconsideration of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955
- 2016, Is chronic fatigue syndrome finally being taken seriously?
- 1987, Royal Free disease: perplexity continues
- 1984, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and Postviral Fatigue States: The Saga of Royal Free Disease, A. Melvin Ramsay, Gower Medical Publishing, London (book)
- 1978, Epidemic myalgic encephalomyelitis (The BMJ)
- 1978, Epidemic neuromyasthenia 1955-1978 (A. Melvin Ramsay, The BMJ)
- 1977, Icelandic disease (benign myalgic encephalomyelitis or Royal Free disease) (A. Melvin Ramsay, Elizabeth Dowsett, J V Dadswell, W H Lyle, and J G Parish, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr Betty Scott, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr Nigel Dean Compston, H. E. Dimsdale, A. Melvin Ramsay, and A. T. Richardson, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr E D Acheson, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr Paula Gosling, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr G J Burke, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr E J Hopkins, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr J F Galpine, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr D C Poskanzer, The BMJ)
- 1970, Epidemic malaise (Dr J G Parish, The BMJ)
- 1978, An Outbreak of Encephalomyelitis in the Royal Free Hospital Group, London, in 1955, Dr Nigel Dean Compston
- 1965, Eclipse of hysteria (Dr Betty Scott, A. Melvin Ramsay, The BMJ)
- 1965, Hysteria and 'Royal Free Disease' (A. Melvin Ramsay, The BMJ)
- 1957, An Outbreak of Encephalomyelitis in the Royal Free Hospital Group, London, in 1955, The Medical Staff Of The Royal Free Hospital
See also[edit | edit source]
- Epidemic myalgic encephalomyelitis
- List of outbreaks
- Royal Free Hospital
- A. Melvin Ramsay
- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis
- Royal Free Disease
- 1948-49 Akureyri outbreak (Iceland)
Learn more[edit | edit source]
- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Organic Disease or Psychosomatic Illness? A Re-Examination of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955
References[edit | edit source]
- The Medical Staff Of The Royal Free Hospital (October 19, 1957). "An Outbreak of Encephalomyelitis in the Royal Free Hospital Group, London, in 1955". British Medical Journal. 2: 895–904.
- "A new clinical entity?" (PDF). Lancet. 1: 789–790. 1956.
- Ramsay, A. Melvin (October 30, 1965). "Hysteria and "Royal Free Disease."". British Medical Journal. 2 (5469): 1062. ISSN 0007-1447. PMC 1847119.
- Ramsay, A. Melvin; O'Sullivan, E (May 26, 1956). "Encephalomyelitis simulating poliomyelitis". The Lancet. 270: 761–764.
- Ramsay, A. Melvin (November 1978). "'Epidemic neuromyasthenia' 1955-1978". Postgraduate Medical Journal. 54: 718–721.
- Underhill, Rosemary; Baillod, Rosemarie (January 2021). "Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Organic Disease or Psychosomatic Illness? A Re-Examination of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955". Medicina. 57 (1): 12. doi:10.3390/medicina57010012. PMC 7824095. PMID 33375343.
- Compston, N.D. (1978). "An outbreak of encephalomyelitis in the Royal Free Hospital Group, London, in 1955". Postgraduate Medical Journal. 54: 722–724.
- Ramsay, A. Melvin (1984). Post-viral fatigue: The saga of the Royal Free Disease. London: Gower. ISBN 978-0906923962.
- Dawson, J (February 7, 1987). "Royal Free disease: perplexity continues" (PDF). British Medical Journal (Clinical Research Ed.). 294 (6568): 327–328. doi:10.1136/bmj.294.6568.327. PMC 1245346.
- Waters, F. G.; McDonald, G. J.; Banks, S.; Waters, R. A. (April 2, 2020). "Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) outbreaks can be modelled as an infectious disease: a mathematical reconsideration of the Royal Free Epidemic of 1955". Fatigue: Biomedicine, Health & Behavior. 8 (2): 70–83. doi:10.1080/21641846.2020.1793058. ISSN 2164-1846.