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Ports and disease

Infectious disease
Ports and the spread of disease
The Port Health Authorities
SARS and beyond
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The Port Health Authorities

The Port of London Port Sanitary Authority

Form R70 9949.
View full size imageForm R70 9949. © NMM
To raise the standards of healthcare and public health, the government created the port sanitary authorities (PSAs) in 1872. These employed medical men instead of customs officers. 

The PSAs had the power to inspect incoming vessels and their cargoes. They also had the duty to investigate any health problem connected with the port.

The Port Sanitary Authority launch 'James Howell' (1923).
View full size imageThe Port Sanitary Authority launch James Howell (1923).
In the beginning, the PSAs concentrated on disease control, as infectious diseases were still a very serious threat to public health. With the increase in numbers of immigrants, the PSAs carried out medical inspections of new arrivals (especially those the authorities described as 'low-class aliens').

As with the earlier quarantine ships, the Port of London PSA carried out much of its work lower down the Thames. The medical inspections of immigrants took place at Gravesend.

The PSA in action

In 1895, following a case of cholera among Jewish emigrants gathered in Hamburg for the trip to London, 'stringent precautions' were taken to keep the disease out.

The Port Sanitary Authority hulk 'Hygeia' at Gravesend.
View full size imageThe Port Sanitary Authority hulk Hygeia at Gravesend. © NMM
When they arrived at Gravesend, all the passengers of the SS Vesta were examined for the disease. Their addresses were taken and their health was monitored with the assistance of the borough councils. This was a far cry from the days of quarantine.

With time, as infectious diseases became less common, the work of the PSA became increasingly routine. 

The London Port Health Authority today

Rabies warning sign at the South Dock.
View full size imageRabies warning sign at the South Dock. © NMM
The London Port Health Authority is the successor to the old Port Sanitary Authority. It keeps a watchful eye on any suspected cases of infectious disease, and its doctors are on call to investigate any reported illness in the port.


Its other functions include:

  • the inspection of meat and other foodstuffs to confirm that the food is fit for consumption and to intercept illegal food imports
  • the inspection of food hygiene on vessels within the port
  • the monitoring of noise levels, refuse handling and industrial emissions within the port area.

Useful link:

London Port Health Authority


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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory Greenwich New Opportunities Fund  
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