Sir George Turner, Medical Officer of Health

Transcribed from the "The Records of the Corporation" by William Gates (1933)

A man of whom little is known, but who is worthy of a high place among Hampshire's greatest men is the late Dr. Sir George Turner. He was born February 12th, 1848, at No. 12, Chapel Row, Portsea (now Admiralty Walk), his father carrying on business as a draper and silk mercer in a large establishment next to the Sailors' Home. He was educated at Christchurch, Winchester and Paris. In 1864 he was placed with Ford and King, of Bath, but was soon removed by his anxious parents because he fell deeply in love with a pretty shop girl. Some time later he resolved to enter the Medical Profession, and took his degrees at Guy's Hospital. In 1873 he was appointed the first Medical Officer of Health for Portsmouth, and he also served as an Assistant Surgeon at the Royal Portsmouth Hospital, Physician to the Fever Hospital, Public Analyst and Surgeon to the Police. He was a most zealous sanitary reformer.
He pleaded for the provision of an Infectious Diseases Hospital ; he wanted a continuous water supply ; he urged the general adoption of the water-borne drainage system ; he pointed out the necessity for a public abattoir ; he advocated the better regulation of common lodging-houses; these requests and many more are to be seen in his annual reports, now preserved as a precious souvenir of a most able man, a pioneer in sanitary science, a great benefactor to the farmers of South Africa, and finally, a martyr in the cause of humanity. Having lost his wife, he resigned his appointments in Portsmouth to become Medical Officer of Health for the combined sanitary district of Herts and Essex. In 1882 he was appointed Lecturer on Hygiene at Guy's Hospital and Examiner for the Diploma of Public Health at Cambridge University. In July, 1895, he was appointed Medical Officer of Health for the Cape Colony, and it was there that the greatest and most beneficial work of his life was performed.
By the courtesy of the Editor of The Times, we are enabled to re-publish the following article which appeared in that journal on January 18th, 1913:—
Another Father Damien
Sir George Turner's Career
Father Damien's story is almost a household word. Even those who do not remember Stevenson's famous tract know vaguely of the life which he devoted to the lepers of Hawaii, and of his death amongst them of their own disease. The New Year's Honours List contained amongst its knighthoods an English name to which a meed of no less respect is due.
Dr. George Turner, now Sir George Turner, entered the Civil Service of Cape Colony as Medical Officer of Health in 1895. He was then already nearly fifty years of age ; but in the period which followed, until his retirement 12 years later, he rendered services to South Africa and to the cause of humanity at large which have never been adequately recognized except by a very few. In the year after his arrival in the Cape Colony the rinderpest broke out. Dr. Koch was then at work to discover a cure. He had already invented a system of inoculation against the disease, but he was recalled early in the following year before his work was complete. Dr. Turner, appointed to succeed him with only three weeks' collaboration before he left, finished the inoculation work, and produced a curative and preventive serum. This he achieved, but in a form which only gave immunity for three weeks. He accordingly renewed his researches, and before long hit upon the simultaneous inoculation of virus and serum. This was within six months of his appointment to succeed Dr. Koch. Within a year rinderpest in Cape Colony was absolutely stamped out. The Cape Colony Government then decided to close Dr. Turner's station, but the serum produced there was so urgently required in Rhodesia and Egypt, that Cecil Rhodes carried it on for another four months at his own expense. Then the work came to an end. In the course of it Dr. Turner had saved the country millions of pounds.
Dr. Turner's great capacity was soon required in a different field. It was not long to the outbreak of the war, and his services were volunteered at the outset, but refused. In the following April, observing a high rate of mortality among the troops from typhoid at a season when there should have been a low one, he wrote to the Headquarters Staff volunteering again for service at the front on his ordinary pay. This offer also was declined ; but later on when the ravages from typhoid, which he had predicted had become appallingly severe, he was sent for by Lord Roberts, and asked to supervise the military hospitals and afterwards the concentration camps. Lord Roberts himself bore testimony to the value of Dr. Turner's work, carried out in very trying conditions at the constant risk of his life. In 1901 the rinderpest broke out again, and Lord Kitchener asked for Dr. Turner's help. Amid much difficulty a station was started at Pretoria with some of the serum made at Dr. Turner's old station in 1897, and serum was again sold to Egypt and to Natal. In twelve months the rinderpest had been once more stamped out.
It was in the midst of these activities that Dr. Turner devoted himself first to the noblest work of his life. There was then a leper asylum at Pretoria with about 50 Dutch and 40 native patients. He gave up all his spare time to work among the lepers, doing all he could to alleviate their lot, and prosecuting a tireless research into the nature of the disease. For three years he laboured at this work without extra pay of any sort. He saw the lepers early in the morning, and again when he came home in the evening. Saturday and Sunday he gave to them entirely. In addition to this he made as many post-mortem examinations as possible in his laboratory, rising at dawn in order to have time for the work. The asylum contains a large number of lepers, European as well as native, and a visitor who watched Dr. Turner moving amongst them in the asylum bears witness to the passionate devotion with which he was regarded by all its inmates. The saddest feature of these institutions is afforded by the leper children born of leper parents, for in every case several members of a leper family are admitted together. As the medical superintendent moved about the asylum, which is in the nature of a village, he was usually followed by a crowd of these unfortunate children by whom he was adored.
On reaching the age limit Dr. Turner retired to pursue his studies into the bacteriological side of leprosy in the laboratories of this country. It had always been the ambition of his life to find some remedy for the disease. The problem, however, is an exceedingly difficult one, owing to the fact that none of the lower animals have yet been found to be capable of contracting the disease. Suddenly, after several years' work in this country his eye was attracted by certain marks on his hand while he was shaving, and he recognized them at once as the stamp of the disease which he had set himself to fight. His diagnosis was independently confirmed by two specialists, to whom he went at once, and from that time he has worked unswervingly amid the pain and beneath the shadow of a leper's lot. For the last two years he has been living in seclusion, and it is curious that his heroic history has escaped the notice of the public, for Sir George Turner is a man of eminence in his profession, and one of the greatest living authorities on leprosy. Recently, however, the case came to the knowledge of his Majesty, on whose own initiative Dr. Turner's name has been included in the list of New Year's honours.
It is much to him now, we do not doubt, that his noble service has been honoured by the King ; but we venture to think that something is still owing to him from the Dominion which he served. Not he himself can foretell the course of his disease, but the time may come—he has already lost the use of his left arm—when trained assistance will be an urgent need. We believe that the South African Government is considering the possibility of increasing the slender pension which is now his only support. There are few individuals whose work can be appraised like his, in actual millions of pounds ; and yet that part of it is in a sense the least. We can appraise the material results of his career ; its splendid heroism we can only salute and admire.
A Local Tribute
The following extracts from the Evening News also bear tribute to his noble work :—

For Portsmouth people the most interesting name upon the honours list, is that of Dr. George Turner, to whom the borough owes more than it is ever likely to express. In the first place, Dr. Turner is a Portmuthian, being a son of one of the partners in a high-class firm of drapers who many years ago had a flourishing business where the Sailors' Home now stands, from which they migrated to Southsea when that district rose into fashionable prominence. Having taken his diploma in medicine, Dr. Turner was appointed Medical Officer of Health for Portsmouth at a time when the sanitary condition of the borough left very much indeed to be desired, and having the courage of the true reformer, he at once set about improving the local conditions.
One of the first things in which he succeeded was to induce the Council, in the face of considerable opposition, to seek Parliamentary sanction to the compulsory notification of infectious disease, Portsmouth being one of only two towns in the Kingdom to anticipate in this way the general Act subsequently passed. The next step was the provision of accommodation for the treatment of small-pox patients. In times past Portsmouth was visited about every ten years by an epidemic of this disease, and Dr. Turner, anticipating a recurrence, induced the Council to hire a house near the Gaol, in which sure enough 40 patients had to be accommodated. This was the first step in the provision of an Infectious Diseases Hospital, and it is interesting to recall the fact that Sir Scott Foster, who was then a strong advocate of this sanitary reform was threatened with all manner of pains and penalties by indignant ratepayers, who declared that the sanctity of the home and individual liberty—to spread disease—would be jeopardized thereby.
After his return from South Africa he retired to Colyton in Devon where he became a much loved and respected citizen. He died on March 12th, 1915 and was buried at Colyton, honoured by all who were aware of his life of rare devotion and sacrifice.