The canned beef that caused a typhoid outbreak that put Aberdeen in lockdown in the 1960s

Self-isolations, lockdowns and travel bans – and no, it’s not the coronavirus pandemic. In May 1964, the largest typhoid outbreak in recent British history struck Aberdeen, with 507 recorded cases quarantined at City Hospital and Tor-na-Dee Hospital.

Before long, the outbreak was traced to Scottish grocer William Low and an unsuspecting can of corned beef from Argentina.

Pollution from the water of the Uruguay River was thought to be the source of the contamination, which eventually spread through the meat machines at Fray Bentos, which were then sold at the William Low supermarket on Union Street.

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The typhoid organism was thought to have entered the meat can through a hole in the seam and was passed on to anyone who came into contact with the store’s corned beef.

The first two cases were identified in May 1964 and soon approximately 32 patients were admitted each day. On May 12, the first patient was admitted to hospital with a blood report positive for Salmonella typhi.

A May 23 report stated that 38 of 41 patients had consumed cold meat from William Low’s supermarket, thus raising suspicions about the source of the infection.

The Public Health Laboratory built on this theory and discovered that the typhoid was type 34, a variant common in South America and virtually unknown in Britain.

The William Low supermarket was cleaned by the Ministry of Health and Welfare between May 20 and 23, and a contamination control investigation was carried out.

Schools across the city were closed and Aberdon holidaymakers were told to stay at home – with the city’s medical officer of health, Dr Ian MacQueen, ordering people not to leave Aberdeen without “good reason”.

Professor Elizabeth Russell was on the frontline as a senior house officer at City Hospital during the outbreak. She told the BBC in 2008: ‘I think the NHS has handled it very well.

“I think we were very lucky at the time, but I was surprised at the speed at which the movement of patients in particular played a role.”

Panic over the infection spread much wider than the infection itself, with many Scots unwilling to travel further north than Stonehaven. Most patients spent at least four weeks in the hospital without any visitors coming in.

At the children’s hospital, families could visit through the window to watch their little ones. Elsewhere in the city, rumors began to circulate that there were piles of dead bodies on the beach waiting to be buried, when the reality was quite the opposite.

Somehow, all the infected people ended up on the other side, with no deaths, which was unusual for a typhoid outbreak. On June 6, headlines began telling readers that freedom had returned as the number of cases began to decline.

When the outbreak ended two months after the first case, the Queen visited to boost morale and help the city’s tarnished reputation.

The consideration of Aberdeen as a safe city to live and work in was briefly damaged by reporting of the typhoid cases, although grocer William Low was less fortunate.

The Dundee-based company continued to open stores in Scotland, but never returned to Aberdeen. One positive that could come from the cases is the lessons about hygiene – although the ongoing pandemic may dispel that theory.

Professor Hugh Pennington told the BBC in 2014: “We thought we had seen the back of bugs like typhoid and these terrible outbreaks in 1964.

“We hadn’t seen many cases at all in Britain, especially in Aberdeen.

“We had a very good medical setup for a long time, clean water, all this stuff, so it actually surprised everyone.

“I think we learned a lot of lessons.”