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Colin McEvedy

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 06 October 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:847

Psychiatrist who reinterpreted the Royal Free fatigue epidemic and wrote historical atlases

Colin McEvedy was interested in mass movements of people, whether as a psychiatrist, historian, or demographer, but it was his analysis of a mystery illness at the Royal Free Hospital in London that made his name in psychiatry. In 1955 an epidemic swept through the nursing staff at the Royal Free, closing the hospital for three months. In all, 300 people were affected, 200 of whom were admitted. No one died and not one single hospital patient was affected, and no causative organism was ever found, though not for want of looking. The disease was described as a benign, myalgic form of encephalomyelitis.

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Fifteen years later, Colin McEvedy, then a senior registrar at the Middlesex Hospital, co-wrote two papers (with his boss, Professor Bill Beard), arguing, firstly, that the epidemic was one of conversion hysteria triggered by fear, probably of polio (BMJ 1970;1(687): 7-11), which was still a serious problem at the time; and, secondly, that it was one of several reported similar epidemics, others of …

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