Most people now understand that the Covid virus is airborne. It is quite rare for anyone to become infected outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Here at Kendal, our administration and residents are increasingly concerned that all our buildings have sufficient ventilation.

A recent article in The Atlantic (“We’re Just Rediscovering a 19th-Century Pandemic Strategy”) written by Sarah Zhang, cast an interesting light on the history of ventilation as a medical issue. Did you know, for example, that the tower at the Palace of Westminster that holds Big Ben was built in the 1840s as part of a massive ventilation system?

The mid-1800s was a period when ventilation was taken very seriously by the medical profession. They knew that diseases could be spread by “bad air”, even though they didn’t know what was in it that made it bad. The existence of viruses wasn’t demonstrated until 1892, and it would be more than half a century after that before scientists really understood what viruses were and how they worked. But the benefits of ventilation were well known in the mid-1800s.

I was particularly interested to learn the role of Florence Nightingale in this. I knew of her, as many do, as a nurse who served in the Crimean War. Using statistics and data diagrams, she was able to show the British Army that they were losing ten times more soldiers to diseases like typhus, typhoid, cholera, and dysentery than from battle injuries. This resulted in major changes in health care and living conditions for the soldiers.

What I didn’t know was that Florence Nightingale, recognizing the importance of fresh air, went on to profoundly change the architecture of hospitals, particularly their window arrangements and systems for ventilation. Those changes persisted until the advent of modern forced-air heating (and later air conditioning) systems.

Then, the lessons of Florence Nightingale were gradually forgotten; but now we find we need to learn them again. What is it they say about those who ignore history?