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K Donaldson, WA Wallace, C Henry, A Seaton
Journal Issue: 
Volume 47: Issue 4: 2017




The building of the Edinburgh New Town, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, was a major advance in harmonious and elegant town planning. However, there is anecdotal evidence that it led to the occurrence of an epidemic of silicosis/tuberculosis among the stonemasons. We have reviewed contemporary accounts of the episode and early records of the understanding of silicosis. We have also studied the lung of a contemporary stonemason, preserved in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and confirmed the presence of silico-tuberculosis in it. The evidence shows that a major epidemic did occur, caused by a combination of factors. The size of the undertaking attracted many stonemasons to Edinburgh over a period of almost 100 years, intensively cutting and dressing stone. The principal stone worked was a very high-quartz sandstone, derived from the local Craigleith quarry, having properties that made it desirable for prestige buildings. However, even before the construction of the New Town, Craigleith sandstone was notorious for its dustiness and the Edinburgh stonemasons worked the stone in unventilated sheds. Stonemasons appeared to be aware of the risk of their trade, but little was known about preventive measures. It appears it was assumed that the risks to stonemasons disappeared after the Craigleith quarry closed, the employers emphasising (without evidence) the lack of health risks in other quarries, and the tragic episode appears to have been forgotten. However, we point to the continuing occurrence of silicosis among stonemasons to the present day; the importance of remembering such episodes is stressed lest the lessons of the past be forgotten.