Home

Previous page

Next page

Chapter VIII

INFANTILE LOCKJAW

Lockjaw the most appalling thing connected with St. Kilda—One-half of the infants die of this malady—“If it's God's will that babies should die nothing you can do will save theml”—This terrible scourge described as a “wise device of the Almighty”—The disease known to have existed on the island for over a century—The symptoms described—Mortality returns since 1830—The disease known also as the “eight-day sickness”—Various theories to account for the disease—A trained nurse sent to the island—Decrease in the high mortality—The cause and the cure apparently discovered


THE “eight-day sickness” or infantile lockjaw (trismus nascentium) is the most appalling thing connected with St. Kilda. Roughly speaking, one-half of the children born on the island come into the world only to die of this terrible scourge when they are a few days old. Medical men have been casting about for the cause of this frightful mortality, while pious men of a certain type have been peacefully folding their hands, endeavouring to console themselves with the fatalistic reflection, quite worthy of the unspeakable Turk, that after all it is the Almighty's business, not theirs.

Only a year or two ago Miss Macleod, sister of the proprietor, on one of her visits to the island, made a suggestion to the people that a properly-qualified female nurse should be sent to them, but a certain old man, who shall here be nameless, met the proposal with the devout exclamation—“If it's God's will that babies should die nothing you can do will save them!” Mr. Sands bears testimony' to the fact that he has “heard more than one pious gentleman suggest that this distemper was probably a wise provision of Providence for preventing a redundant population on a rock where food was limited.” I have heard the same idea expressed even more dogmatically. On my way home from St. Kilda I had the pleasure of meeting a great gun of the Free Church—a gentleman who makes the Assembly Hall ring with his ponderous voice every year. Learning from a mutual friend that I had been to St. Kilda, he had many questions to ask about the minister and the people. On the subject of this terrible lockjaw he became particularly loquacious. With a knowing air, and evidently wishing the company to understand that he was coaching me with my facts, he was not ashamed to say that this lockjaw was a wise device of the Almighty for keeping the population within the resources of the island. When I asked him how he could reconcile this theory with the two facts that not so very long ago the population was nearly three times as large as it is today, and that as a fishing station the island could easily maintain two or three thousand people he was dumb. His dispensation to speak of the ways of Providence evidently did not carry him so far as this.

This disease has afflicted St Kilda for over a century at least. Macaulay, writing in 1758, says the infants born on the island were then peculiarly subject to it. The symptoms at that time do not appear to have been different from what they are in our own day. “On the fourth or fifth day after their birth many of them give up sucking; on the seventh their gums are so clenched together that it is impossible to get anything down their throats. Soon after this symptom appears they are seized with convulsive fits, and after struggling against excessive torments till their strength is exhausted die generally on the eighth day.” Prior to 1830 we have no mortality returns for our guidance; we have a vague, general statement by a medical writer in 1838 that eight out of every ten children succumbed to this terrible scourge; and Mr. M‘Raild, the factor, at a more recent date put the rate still higher. His estimate was that nine out of every ten infants succumbed to the deadly lockjaw. Mr. Morgan, on the other hand, puts the proportion of deaths at five in every nine births.

Fortunately there is no occasion for uncertainty or guess-making on the point so far as the period since 1830 is concerned, if we except a few years following the Disruption. The Rev. Neil Mackenzie instituted, on his being sent by the Church of Scotland to St. Kilda in 1830, a register of births, marriages, and deaths. Mr. Mackenzie left the island in 1844, but his register of deaths is really made up to 1846, and covers a period of slightly over 16 years. When the Free Church took up the reins of power the register appears to have been neglected or forgotten, and accordingly we have no returns between 1846 and 1856. In the latter year the Registrar-General interfered, and at his instance the island was constituted a registration district. Such it still is, with the Rev. Mr. Mackay as registrar in addition to his other duties, temporal and spiritual. One peculiarity about Mr. Mackay's "district" is that the returns need necessarily be transmitted to Edinburgh only once every ten years.