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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Everyday Life

Health and Sickness

By David Hamilton

Life was short in early Glasgow, shortened by infectious disease, epidemics, warfare, floods, fires and accident. Clean water and basic food was usually available, but harvest-time caused yearly anxiety. Illness was blamed on supernatural influences, but the town had a lively awareness of cross-infection. Lepers were banished to a hospital outside the town from 1350 and, when serious epidemics such as the plague (Black Death) appeared from 1349 onwards, vigorous attempts were made to exclude strangers through quarantine, cases found inside the town being segregated on the Town's Muir. During an epidemic those who could leave the town did so. At other times smallpox, typhus and diarrhoeal disease were an ever-present threat. Syphilis arrived throughout Scotland in 1497 and the Glasgow female victims were promptly isolated near the Stable Grein Port.

There were choices in day-to-day health care. Local healers offered herbs and charms, but these wise women risked the label of witchcraft, though they increasingly obtained respectability as midwives. Itinerant healers, not always unskilled, passed through Glasgow. Locally, there were surgeons trained by apprenticeship in healing wounds and setting fractures and the town employed a surgeon intermittently for treating the poor. A university-educated learned physician treated the well-off, charging high fees with elaborate diagnosis and a prognosis involving astrology, but his sophisticated medicines seem to have been ineffective. Local healing shrines were the Cathedral graveyard's Cross of St Mary and many sufferers would travel in hope to distant places of pilgrimage with more powerful healing reputations.

Hospitals in the modern sense did not exist, most care being in the patient's home. Some institutions called "hospital" were monastic institutions caring for the soul rather than the body of the destitute or elderly, or were supported by civic benevolence, notably St Nicholas Hospital (Provand's Lordship).

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