A Footballer’s Death That Changed Britain

In May 1957, England came up against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley and won 5-1. Within two years, one in four of the players on show would be dead.

Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, Liam Whelan died in the Munich crash of February 1958 and Duncan Edwards succumbed to his injuries shortly afterwards.

But it was Jeff Hall’s death in April 1959 that had the most far reaching and lasting impact.

Hall was born in Roger Bannister’s year, 1929, and, at the age of 27, the game against the Republic would be the Birmingham City man’s last cap. Don Howe, later a famous coach, took his place despite Hall’s partnership with Roger Byrne yielding only the one defeat in 17 games. Compare Bobby Moore, who lost four of his first seventeen.

In March 1959, Jeff Hall played against Portsmouth at Fratton Park, then began feeling ill. He was diagnosed with polio, went into hospital, and died there only two weeks later.

Polio was not an ancient killer in Britain; it was no tuberculosis. As in the U.S., it had its terrible heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, provoking “polio scares” and killing or crippling its victims. Youth and vigour were no defence.

Jonas Salk’s vaccination against polio was freely available in Britain by 1959, and had been for some years. But Jeff Hall hadn’t had it, and neither had the majority of his generation. Vaccination wasn’t the automatic choice that it became. What happened to Hall changed that attitude overnight.

On April 4th, he died. On the fifth, Hall headlined the Monday papers. Birmingham mourned the loss of a famous son. But everywhere else, in coffee bars, dance halls, cinemas, pubs and biker cafes, the message was clear: if it can happen to him, it can happen to me.

Crowds demanding vaccination surrounded ordinary GP surgeries and NHS hospitals.  Authorities opened emergency clinics. Jets flew in from the States with extra supplies.

By the beginning of the 1960s, polio vaccination was being given to every schoolchild. Polio soon ceased to be a part of British life. In 1955, there were 6,000 polio cases. In 2005, there were none. If it wasn’t for the determination of certain Nigerian imams to spread conspiracy theories, the disease would all but have ceased to exist.

If only it was just Nigeria. In Britain, the Lancet’s publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper about the MMR jab, and the anti-MMR autism scare that followed in the Independent and elsewhere, has helped to end children’s herd immunity to measles. Herd immunity needs vaccination rates of at least 95%. In recent years, the percentage has dropped to 90.

But the anti-MMR campaigners could not have thrived had others not laid the ground for them. The homeopathic community in Britain contains organized groups and individuals who propagandize against the whole idea of vaccination and have done so for many years. Then there is the science-is-just-another-ideology idea, the natural-products-versus-chemicals wing of the green movement, the Thalidomide disaster and other contributing factors.

The anti-MMR campaign has had measurable results. Measles cases jumped  30% in 2007 alone. It’s not what the anti-vaccinators want to happen. But it’s what they get. In 2001, there were 72 cases of mumps in Wales; in 2005, 3,000. In 2003, Scotland saw 181 cases; in 2004, 3,595.

Pre-1988 vaccination programmes had significant weaknesses and the figures include immigrants whose own childhood immunisation is unclear. It’s not all down to the Wakefield fiasco.  But the drop in immunisation take-up is large, measurable, and has only partly been reversed. And that involves the  anti-MMR movement up to their necks.

Britain might have forgotten Jeff Hall, but Birmingham City certainly hasn’t. A clock was erected in Jeff’s memory at St Andrews shortly after his death, and there’ll shortly be a new one, chosen by Birmingham fans, after they deemed the initial replacement clock too small.

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8 responses to “A Footballer’s Death That Changed Britain

  1. Interesting piece. I’m not too sure about the prevailing climate being more anti-science or vaccines than before though – wasn’t there a similar scare with the whooping cough vaccine in the the 1970s based on similarly bogus science and which had even worse impact on vaccine takeup?

  2. “the Lancet’s publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper about the MMR jab, and the anti-MMR autism scare that followed in the Independent and elsewhere”: fair enough, but don’t overlook the effect of the PM’s prevarications too.

  3. But both the current PM and the previous one’s children had the MMR vaccine. Assuming you mean Blair, this, surely, means his prevarications were for the reason he said, that he didn’t want to give in to tabloid (i.e the Sun and Mail (surely the worst offender)) pressure on medical matters concerning his children?

  4. Of course I mean Blair – and you’re not really suggesting that anything he says should be believed are you?

  5. I think what you say is really interesting from a different perspective- in the sense that the real way that people are persuaded to do something isn’t through hearing about it, but through seeing its effects on people. It says something about the human mind and the way it processes information I think- we are much better at processing sympathetic information than we are at processing and applying logical information.

  6. House rules, remember chaps – no sport, religion or politics.

    @Gracchi: Yes, agreed. (In UK culture, aesthetic arguments (“Dawkins is shrill”) trump logical arguments (“Dawkins is right and here’s why – point A,B,C..”) on almost every occasion). Jeff Hall’s death turned the need for vaccination from a dot on a dusty, academic horizon into, well, “Here’s Johnny!” Likewise, I acquired my interest in bookkeeping and accounting very suddenly on the day my psychotherapy practice went bust. “Here’s… Pacioli!” or something like that.

  7. Hi

    Its cut and dried then? Polio kills one person and the vaccine comes in to save everyone?

    Some people think infections like this need to act with chemical involvement and this era (40 – 50) was the era of organochlorine pesticides (OC’s). The abolition of which coincided with the abolition of polio too in England. Where was polio before?

    In Asia and Africa they still use OC’s and still get polio.

    Its not easy to know but yes the vaccine has worked for England but the people that get polio today are not talked about as often they are parents maybe of children innoculated. But they are there and do still die.

    In 2001 India, a report on polio deaths after polio vaccines lasted just one day before being pulled. Today all you can see is why did a vitamin kill so many children with all the experts saying its just not possible.

    Lets have vaccines but lets not cover up the hundreds of thousands of accidents or adverse vaccine events too.

    Suzanne Holdsworth cleared of killing a child – little Kylie. Could Kylie be a vaccine victim?

    In the current climate, such a theory is killed even before birth not after several rounds of vaccines and the application of proper science. Anaphylaxis the normal but unwanted reaction to a repeat vaccine.

  8. I have allowed this comment to remain here out of respect for someone prepared to contribute under their real name. Since 1985, worldwide polio outbreaks have been cut by an estimated 99%, which means, in real terms, approx. 250,000 uncrippled individuals. There are only four countries left in which the disease is endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and India. I really don’t think you can blame fertilizer for these, but you can regret the fact that they have reinfected previously polio-free countries.

    No one’s covering up hundreds of thousands of accidents, either, and I resent the use of my site and my name to suggest so.