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Infant malnutrition: A return to Victorian values?

Mark Greener discusses the impact of malnutrition on children in the UK

Rickets was a scourge of dark, polluted, overcrowded Victorian slums. In 1855, Samuel Pearce, the Medical Officer of Health, for St Matthew, Bethnal Green, East London described the area as being as being ‘densely filled by the poorest class’, a labyrinth of streets where ‘hundreds swarm like bees in close, un-sunned, low-lying courts’.1

Rickets, not surprisingly, was rife: 21.4% of children’s skeletons buried in a Bethnal Green cemetery between 1840 and 1855 showed evidence of rickets.1 A 1884 survey reported discovering signs of rickets in every child examined in Clydeside.2 As late as the 1930s, more than 80% of children in London and Durham showed symptoms of the disorder.3 As Roberta Bivins notes, rickets was ‘an emblematic indicator of preventable child malnutrition’.3

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