Harold Beck


(An illustrated version of this paper was published in the July-September 2003 ASTHMA NEWS)


At homes in North Kensington, London, U.K., 1927-1934 (Age 3 to 10)

I was told that I became an asthmatic when I was three years old, after an attack of measles. One of my earliest memories is of waking up on a number of occasions in the middle of the night, shoulders up, struggling for breath then sitting on the landing stairs where there was a much higher ceiling and seemingly fresher air. Often mum or dad would call out for me to come into their bed, which was warm and snug. This was quite a perk but I hope for my parents' sake it did not happen too often. This would probably have been at 54 Highlever Road, when I was 4 to 6 years old.

The standard treatment at that time was Potters Asthma Cure, a powder which was poured onto a saucer to form a cone which was then lit at the top. The pungent smoke from this spitting Vesuvius had to be inhaled deeply. Its beneficial effects were short-lived - the inhalation provided some relief but was certainly not a cure. Later I switched to the up-market Potters Asthma Cigarettes which were more convenient to use and less intrusive on other members of the family. Because of the unhappy circumstance of all this inhaling, my reaction when I later came to smoke cigarettes, a pipe and cigars (none of them to any great extent) was NOT to inhale. I regard the aversion therapy of using the Potter's treatments as a beneficial outcome from asthma.

I would guess my mother started on the trek around London hospitals and clinics in search of a cure as soon as my asthma was diagnosed.  Early on it was thought that inhaling sea air instead of the polluted and sometimes thick and acrid air of London would do the trick so when I was about 4 years old it was arranged, perhaps through the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children or the Anglican Church and probably with the support of the Hospital Savings Association, for me to spend 3 or 4 months in a convalescent home at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight.  About 80 years later I went in search and identified the Home.

St. Catherine's, Ventnor

My stay as a young boy in Ventnor did not cure my asthma.  It may, however, have helped by strengthening me for a long life full of surprising incidents.  My parents probably thought it was of some benefit for when I was about eight years old I was sent for three weeks to a convalescent home on the sea front at a South Coast resort, perhaps Eastbourne or Bournemouth.  Another memory is of my parents saying they had chosen Hunstanton as a holiday destination because it was reputed to be "good for asthma".  For the same reason I went on several occasions to stay with an Uncle, Aunt and cousins at Blackpool, travelling by myself in the front seat of Standerwick coaches for the 10-hour journey.  My Uncle Herman Clottu was a Swiss confectioner and the family lived above the shop in which the superb-quality chocolates were made and sold - I was never sure if it was the sea air or the chocolates which provided the greater relief but I regard the development of a taste for good chocolates as a beneficial outcome from asthma.

I remember two treatments at the Great Ormond Street Hospital. One was having my stomach pumped, for a reason which I did not know then and do not know now.  I also underwent allergy tests in which a series of dots were made on my left arm to determine sensitivity to various substances.  A nil result was obtained. Likewise with visits to an osteopath who twisted my neck on the theory that this would alleviate the asthma.  presumably there was another theory that I needed both external and internal lubrication for he also prescribed that I should wear a band of cotton wool around my neck soaked in castor oil and imbibe a nightly cocktail of castor oil and port.  It was not the best induction to the joys of drinking in general and port wine in particular.  I was also taken to see a psychologist who, after giving me several tests, pronounced me as too intelligent (so my parents said) to benefit by that method.

In all these cases it was my mother who took me to the hospital, clinic or surgery and afterwards she always took me to a Lyons teashop for a "milk and a dash" - i.e. nearly all milk but with a trace of coffee - which became my favourite perk between the ages of 6 and 10.

I was very upset by one preventative method adopted by my parents.  While I was playing with a friend next door he let slip that I was going on holiday with my family the following day.  I remember vehemently denying it - only to find it was true. My parents had wondered if excitement ahead of a holiday triggered an asthma attack and decided to keep it to themselves until we started the journey.

I lost much schooling when I was at Oxford Gardens L.C.C. Infants and Primary Schools.  In addition to days off for visits to clinics etc. for asthma treatment, I had days at home due to asthma attacks.  I also spent time in hospital after an operation to move an abcess from my knee, had days off for treatment of an eye defect, reacted badly to a diphtheria injection, had my tonsils removed and so on - but it was the asthma that caused the greatest loss of lesson time.  Perhaps the most beneficial outcome from the asthma was a measure taken by my father to help me catch up with school work.  He paid an excellent teacher at Oxford Gardens Primary School - a Mr. Davies - to give me private tuition.  Mr. Davies's strict and effective tuition did me a power of good and led to my obtaining both a Junior County Scholarship and a Free Place to the Regent Street Polytechnic School for Boys at the age 10.


At home in North Kensington, 1934-39 (10 to 14).

By the time I started my Secondary education at Regent Street Polytechnic, 309 Regent Street, there had been a great step forward in the treatment of asthma, namely the Atomiser. It came from Germany, and used a pumping device which contained a liquid called Bronchovydrin. This produced a spray of droplets which had to be breathed into the lungs, producing relief in a much more socially acceptable manner and with fewer side effects than the Potters method. My grandmother on my father’s side had asthma (which gave me a rather special bond with her) and she had tried and derived considerable benefit from the Atomiser so when I started at the Polytechnic school my parents provided one for me.

By good fortune the U.K. Sales office for the Atomiser (at some time also called the Pag) was just off Regent Street, about half way between Oxford and Piccadilly Circuses. In that office was a motorised Atomiser (which we now call a Nebuliser) and I was invited to make use of it whenever the hand-operated Atomiser proved insufficient to control an attack. So at lunchtime on some days I would make my gasping way slowly down Regent Street, past Mr. Forte’s new milk bar, past Oxford Circus and Hamleys, to the wonderful machine in the Sales office. There was a spring in my step on the return journey and occasionally I even stopped to look at the toys in Hamleys.

The School were very understanding of my condition and gave me permission to ride up in the lift when I had an asthma attack. Many of our classes were held on the 4th Floor and some, such as Physics and Chemistry, were, I think, even higher. So riding in the lift was a very helpful concession. Indeed it was something of a perk because some quite well-known people used the lift. I got, for example, quite a thrill when I was a fellow-passenger to Griffiths Jones, a popular film star of the late 30's.

I applied myself to my studies and did quite well. However, as I was the youngest in the form it was decided that I might be less prone to asthma attack if I took an extra year so I went through the 5th Form instead of straight from Lower 5th to Upper 5th. Sport was then regarded as out of the question so my muscles and coordination were very underdeveloped. I was a tall and very weedy child and my father affectionately referred to me as Tin Ribs. The search for solutions to the asthma problem continued - I remember having to take soya flour, lettuce and honey in a tin for lunch but that didn’t last for long.


As an Evacuee in Weare and Minehead, Somerset 1939-1942 (14 to 17)

The school was evacuated two days before the outbreak of the 2nd World War. Unfortunately we were directed to the wrong train and found ourselves dispersed among four villages in Somerset in which there was only kindergarten school accommodation. I and a brother went to Weare and were billeted on a farm. It was harvest-time and the farmhouse was located in a valley and needless to say within a day or two I was in the throes of an asthma attack. I was moved into the village proper to stay with two kindly schoolteachers and within a few days I was able to breathe normally again.

I imagine my asthma was not too bad during the 3 years I was in Minehead because the only incident I remember is when my next younger brother (12) and I (15) decided to cycle to Mere in Wiltshire where my parents were spending Easter with my youngest brother (7) and his twin sister, who were evacuated to different places nearby. We thought we would give them all a pleasant surprise. By the time I got to Taunton I was gasping for breath and had to get myself and bike back to Minehead by train. My brother continued on the journey and the welcome he received was very much tempered by concern that he had cycled a considerable distance unaccompanied.

I tried some sport during this period by entering a team for a high-jump competition. I considered the short run-up would enable me to make the effort before the asthma triggers had time to notice but I made such a hash of the take-off that I never tried again - perhaps I should have done. I did, however, get some exercise walking on Minehead’s North Hill, in the lovely combes accessed from Alcombe and over Grabbist to Dunster.

I still needed the Atomiser to cope with the background asthma which has persisted to this day. At some time the Bronchvydrin used in the Atomisers was replaced by Riddobron and the company which supplied it from the same address just off Regent Street was Riddell Products. Perhaps the change was analagous to the change of Bechstein Hall to Wigmore Hall during the 1st World War.


At King’s College London in Bristol & London, home in Blackpool, 1942-1944 (17 to 19)

When I joined King’s College London it was in its final year of evacuation to Bristol. The heavy bombing of Bristol had taken place earlier. The only asthma-related incident that I remember is when I took beginners classes in rowing; lack of strength and breathlessness forced me to give up and concentrate in swimming.

Sometime during the year my parents moved to Blackpool to provide a safe base for the scattered family. The Clottu family had moved out of the chocolate factory/shop at 48 Whitegate Drive. and we moved in. At great sacrifice my father essentially became my Uncle Hermann’s assistant. Incidentally the very high quality chocolates were still being made - somehow or other the Swiss couverture was still available, presumably either from pre-war stock or somehow or other supplies were getting into the country.

Alas the Blackpool sea air & chocolate formula no long benefitted my asthma for I sustained a particularly paralysing and persistent attack. I remember a G.P. coming and giving me injections of adrenalin and morphine until I could breathe well enough again. 55 years later, on a nostalgic trip to Blackpool, I discovered that the G.P.’s home and surgery backed onto our home so there was no difficulty in him popping in.

When the attack subsided it was agreed by my parents with the G.P. that I should have a course of Peptone injections, which apparently were universal desensitisers. What good they did me I cannot say but at least they appeared to do me no harm.

When in 1943 King’s College moved back to the Strand, London, I was referred to the Chest Hospital, City Road?, for treatment. This consisted of fitting me with an artificial orthodontic? which changed the shape of my jaw. It was explained to me that as there was virtually no asthma among people in the Middle East there might be a connection between that and the fact that Middle Eastern people were lantern-jawed. Therefore if I was made lantern-jawed might asthma I would be rid of asthma - I am relating here what I understood was said to me as a 19 year old student. So I was fitted with a plate with springs in it pressing against individual teeth. Frequent adjustment was required so I made my way to the Chest Hospital and later to Wimpole Street for them to be carried out. The net result was that there was no discernable improvement in the asthma and I was left with a somewhat lopsided bite.


At home at 49 St. Quintin Avenue, North Kensington, 1944-1947 (19 to 22)

In addition to the atomiser, the treatment for more persistent attacks was ephedrine and belladonna. Thus when a persistent attack took place in June/July 1944 while I was taking the final exams of my 2-year wartime degree course, I was having to dose myself with these compounds. Asthma was certainly not the only reason why I failed to get my degree first time round - I did not work hard enough, for example. However, the ephedrine in particular, while improving the breathing also produced in me a feeling of jittery excitement which probably affected my judgement to a considerable extent.  Incidentally, it was while taking the physics practical exam several floors up at the College that I most nearly became a casualty of war for a V1 flying bomb passed about 10 metres overhead and exploded about 100 metres away in Aldwych.

Meanwhile having no degree made me eligible for call-up.  I was asked to report for a medical and as a result was placed in Grade 4 and therefore unfit for military service. I would guess that one major outcome of asthma for me was that unlike my peers I never experienced the discipline, hierarchy and camaraderie of service in the Armed Forces. I left re-taking finals while I researched an electronic circuit and ran a radio business to bring in some money.  I got my degree in 1947.

There occurred around this time (but not during the exams) a particularly persistent attack. Whatever I did I just could not shake it off. One evening I dragged myself to the local cinema, in Lancaster Road, just off Ladbroke Grove, to see a film about motor racing - an Uncle had taken me to Brooklands before the war. I saw the film (“Burn ‘em up O’Connor”?) and I had a Polar Maid icecream - and as I made my way out I realised I was breathing completely normally again. I am sure that another major outcome of asthma is learning to live with uncertainty and unpredictability and a tendency to wait and see what happens.


In London, Chrishall, Saffron Walden, Cambridge and Harpenden, 1947-2006 (23 to 82)

From when I started work after graduation and got married, my asthma for most of the time took the form of wheezing and some shortage of breath, especially in the evenings and at night. It was easily controlled by using the atomiser, which became my constant companion. I had a special pocket for it fitted in suits I had made and used it surreptitiously so most colleagues and new friends did not know I had asthma. There were occasional periods of concern leading to a search for new treatment - for example my Cambridge G.P. sent me to a hypnotist but he failed to get me 'under'.  Breathing exercises was another approach, which proved beneficial.  There were also constant external reminders of my asthmatic condition, such as a 20% reduction in pension insurance benefits and reports of scarring of lungs due to asthma whenever I went for mass X-ray. I gave up smoking cigarettes and a pipe in the mid ‘60's and cigars about 10 years later.

In 1986 I had my first serious attack of asthma in nearly 40 years. My Peak Flow was found to be 150. I was sent to St. Albans hospital where I was immediately put on a crash course of prednisolone steroid tablets and was loaned a nebuliser and ventolin capsules. In a few days the attack was under control. This was the point at which I caught up with advances in asthma treatment ie the change from its treatment as an acute problem to regarding it as chronic, with preventers as well as relievers. Since then I normally have one dose of Duovent followed by one of Beclozone (with spacer), night and morning. I measure my peak flow each night and morning and increase the number of doses accordingly. I also have a nebuliser to increase inhalation of reliever when necessary (once in 3 years approximately). I am now more careful to take pcautions such as wearing a dust mask while engaged in DIY and avoiding smoke from bonfires.

In the mid ‘90's, conscious of the debt I owe to research into asthma, I spent two years of intense activity as Chairman (and sometimes also Secretary and Treasurer) of the local Branch of the National Asthma Campaign, raising funds and disseminating information. It is now 2015 and I am 90 years old. and thanks to the application of asthma research the complaint I have had for 87 years is far less of a problem than it was. The writing of this comprehensive account has also led me to realise how much my brothers and sister were affected by my asthma - yet I never heard a word of resentment from them, for which I owe them my lungfelt thanks.