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Background to Byssinosis in Ulster
  1. James A. Smiley
  1. Queen's University, Belfast


    The spinning and weaving of flax have been carried on as domestic arts all over Ireland for many centuries. In the late 18th century more efficient methods were introduced into the British Isles by refugee Huguenots. For historical, economic, and ecological reasons the manufacture of linen became concentrated in Ulster. There is no evidence of a respiratory hazard until mechanization of the processes took place.

    Ramazzini (1705) described a severe respiratory affection amongst scutchers and hacklers aggregated for work in enclosed spaces. In 1831 Thackrah and Jesse Leach (1863) described similar cases occurring in Leeds and Heywood, and in 1860 Greenhow noted the enormous increase in the mortality from respiratory disease following the introduction of linen manufacture to the Pateley Bridge area of Yorkshire. He recognized also the Monday exacerbation. In 1856 Malcolm in Belfast suggested, in a statistical study, that the incidence of respiratory disease was directly related to the dustiness of the occupation and in a series of papers from 1873 onwards Purdon (C.D.) and a number of other Ulster doctors described the syndrome.

    It is my view that, although the incidence of the disease has markedly decreased, cases still occur and that clinically these are indistinguishable from byssinosis in the cotton trade. Recent observations on byssinosis in Ulster, with some typical case histories, provide the evidence for this view.

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    • * The Scott-Heron Lecture delivered at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, on March 3, 1960.