Sunday, September 13, 2015

Grinders' disease

What is the connection between the 1945 film Brief Encounter and Sheffield?   Not the setting, or the destination of any of the trains (although there are signs for trains to Skipton and Bradford).  But the interests of Dr. Harvey, the male character played by Trevor Howard.   There is a scene where he talks about pneumoconiosis, and mentions that it can be caused by metal dust.

And this is grinders' disease, common among Sheffield grinders.  Sheffield City Morris dance to a song about the Sheffield grinder, and a bit of further research uncovers this song, sung here by Roy Bailey. 

At what is now Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, grinders ground scythe blades, using water powered wheels.  The blades were exported worldwide.  There is information at Kelham Island Museum as well about the grinders, many of whom ground cutlery blades.  One of the hazards was that the grinding stone would break and the grinder be injured by the pieces flying off.  This is why health and safety is important, to prevent this sort of thing happening! Another hazard was the dust.  Bailey's song records the thought that 32 was old for a grinder.  Sheffield is built on metal related industries, but the impact of these industries on the people who worked in them is quite thought provoking.  Working with hot metal and working to shape it were and are hazardous pursuits.

Searching PubMed for the phrase "grinder* disease" gives you a message that the quoted phrase is not found (although see below), but it does then find more than 80 references mentioning both words.  Some are about diseases caused by vibration, but the most recent are from July 2014, one about silicosis in agate workers in Iran and one about "cobalt asthma" in valve grinders in the English West Midlands.   The last item in the list is titled "Contributions towards the pathology of grinders' disease of the lungs", from the Provincial Medical Journal of 1843, by J.C. Waterhouse of Sheffield.   This quotes earlier work about the disease, including work that provides figures that back up Roy Bailey's song's observations about how long grinders live for.  Waterhouse's article is in PubMed Central.

A search of PubMed for sheffield grinder* turns up a series of five articles by John Charles Hall, in the British Medical Journal for 1857, about the diseases of the Sheffield grinder.   These articles were themselves the first in a series about "Diseases of special occupations" and are also in PubMed Central.

Steel City Science also has a piece about the issue.  There is much more about Hall in Plarr's Lives of the Fellows (of the Royal College of Surgeons of England), 

That was indeed a brief encounter with grinder's disease!

But it is not over yet.  Here is a photo taken in September 2015 at Shepherd's Wheel, on the Porter Brook in Sheffield.  This grinding wheel was reconstructed and is now open at weekends.  Like workers in the 19th century, no protective clothing, but unlike them, the demonstration lasted seconds, enough to show how it was done and how loud it was, another thing that affected grinders, perhaps.

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