Frayed Bentos – the tin that took down a town

In recent years, we all had to accept, willingly or otherwise, the fact of lockdown in the face of the coronavirus.  However, for some older Aberdonians, that was not their first experience of such draconian measures curtailing their freedom.

In 1964, an unsuspecting tin of corned beef from Argentina became contaminated with the typhoid organism through a hole in the seam of the can.  Pollution from the Uruguay River was believed to be the source of the contamination, which ultimately spread through the meat machines at Fray Bentos (which is actually a place in Uruguay as well as the well-known tinned meat brand) and the cans were then sold at William Low supermarket on Union Street.  It was, in many ways, simply bad luck that that particular consignment had ended up in that supermarket in Aberdeen, but nonetheless two cases of typhoid were identified in May 1964, and before long around 32 patients were being admitted each day.  

A subsequent report on 23rd May showed that 38 people had eaten meat from William Low’s supermarket, thus pointing the finger towards the source of the infection.  Laboratory tests then discovered that the typhoid was type 34, a common variety in South America but almost unknown in the UK.

The William Low supermarket was then deep-cleaned and an inquiry into contamination checking was carried out.  In the meantime, schools were closed and the population of the city was ordered not to leave unless they had a very good reason for doing so. Patients were confined to hospital for four weeks, with no visitors allowed (sounds familiar) and as with Covid, the panic spread faster than the illness and it was reported that many Scots shunned Aberdeen and its environs for some time. 

Despite lurid stories of mounting piles of corpses, all those who were infected survived and no deaths were recorded.  This really was fortunate, as normally a typhoid outbreak would result in some deaths.  Then, by early June, the panic was over and cases declined.  The Queen visited Aberdeen to help boost morale, although she could do nothing for ‘Willie Lows’ who shut down and, despite being successful across the rest of Scotland, never returned to the Granite City.

Julie Skinner, Resourcing and Benefits Specialist, RGU