Snuff container presented to Robert Fortescue for work during the cholera epidemic in Plymouth, by Mills of Birmingham, silver partly gilt, 1832
Should a doctor risk his or her life for the public good? Is caring for highly infectious patients with deadly and untreatable diseases a professional duty or a personal sacrifice? These questions have vexed society for centuries.
Take cholera during the 1800s. Europe was hit by six cholera pandemics that century, spreading not just illness and death but also anxiety and alarm. Tens of thousands of people in Britain died, and everyone lived in fear of becoming its next victim. Imagine then being a doctor called to care for a patient with severe diarrhoea, or a sanitary inspector told to check the quality of water supplies. Was this simply occupational risk?
The compassion, even heroism, of those who faced such hazards did not go unnoticed. These silver snuff boxes were presented to two men for their work during the first and second cholera pandemics. Can you read the inscriptions? One is dedicated “To Robert Fortescue, Surgeon, in testimony of the gratitude and esteem of his fellow townsmen for his humane and unceasing attention to the Poor during the awful visitation of malignant cholera at Plymouth A.D.1832.”
Society’s debate on the duty to treat continues with the emergence of new lethal viruses and bioterrorist threats. Most seek a balance between professional and moral obligations and risk to life. But what these snuff boxes show is that regardless of codes of ethics, outstanding individuals have been willing to put the public health above their own.