The bronchi are the main airways of the lungs which branch off from the windpipe (trachea) and diverge into smaller airways. Normally the bronchi produce mucus to help remove irritating particles, like dust, from the lungs.
Bronchitis is the infection of the bronchi, which causes the bronchi to become inflamed and irritated. More mucus is produced, leading to a persistent cough.
Acute bronchitis is the temporary inflammation of the bronchi, which usually lasts up to three weeks. Chronic bronchitis is the name for long term and recurring inflammation of the bronchi.
The main symptoms of bronchitis are a hacking cough bringing up mucus, sore throat, headache, a blocked or runny nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, aches, tiredness. The infection is most commonly caused by a virus, though bacteria can also infect the bronchi. The virus is spread through droplets in the air released by coughs and sneezes. Bronchitis is also triggered by directly breathing in irritant substances such as tobacco smoke, air pollution and chemicals.
Occupational exposure to irritants - such as fabric fibers in textiles, acids, ammonia and chlorine - puts people at greater risk of developing bronchitis.
London physician Charles Badham coined the term bronchitis. He uses the word in his 1808 publication in which he describes the disease as an ‘inflammatory affection of that part of the mucous membrane which lines the bronchial tubes’. Throughout the 19th century ‘bronchitis’ was consistently defined as the inflammation of the bronchi. This corresponds with our understanding of the disease today. The causes of bronchitis (viral or bacterial infection and breathing in toxic substances) were not known until the second half of the twentieth century.
Throughout the 1800s bronchitis was one of the main causes of death in urban areas of Europe. The disease was particularly abundant in Britain during the late 19th century in damp and smoky industrialised places. Overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions will have caused the virus to spread readily within communities.
The accelerated industrialisation of Leeds in the late 18th and early 19th century caused a smokey atmosphere to develop. The prospering textile industry in particular lead to the introduction of factories, mills and steam engines which in turn contributed to the level of air pollution. Pollutants will have put those working and living in the urban areas of Leeds at a greater risk of contracting bronchitis.
It is thought that bronchitis as a cause of death in children in Victorian Britain is more likely to have been contracted due to infection and the spread of the virus. Whereas exposure to pollutants in the atmosphere and workplaces is more likely to have lead to adult deaths from bronchitis at this time.
The average annual death rate in Leeds of deaths caused by bronchitis, pneumonia and pleurisy (conditions involving the inflammation of the lungs) for the years 1885-9 was 3.92 per 1000 people. By 1920 the annual death rate in Leeds for bronchitis was 1.39 and by 1937 it was 0.48. Bronchitis is one of a number of lung conditions now known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease which still affect people in Britain today and lead to deaths.
Bronchitis is one of the top ten most common causes of death recorded in the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers. To find out more, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the breakdown of who this disease affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.