This is part of a series of articles written by London Blue Badge Tourist Guides who used to be key workers in our capital city. Barry Walsh qualified as a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide in 2000 while working for Public Health England. He writes about his life as a guide and doctor.
London Blue Badge Tourist Guide Barry Walsh.
I have always been interested in the human body, and biology was one of my favourite subjects at school in County Mayo in Ireland. After qualifying as a doctor in Cork in 1981, I decided to specialise in infectious diseases in London and in 1991 I qualified as a medical microbiologist. Over the next twenty-five years, I worked in public health in Kingston and Richmond investigating outbreaks of infections. Over the years my team expanded and eventually was responsible for the whole of South London. It was our responsibility to research, collect and analyse data to control outbreaks of infections.
My job often involved quite a bit of detective work. And it was not all about cold, hard data. You needed to look at the human side too. We were once called into a prison that had an outbreak of salmonella. The cause was something of a mystery. It turned out that the prisoners were bartering egg mayonnaise sandwiches for cigarettes. After they had collected the sandwiches, they would leave them wrapped in plastic on their cell window sills (sometimes for days at a time, allowing the salmonella to multiply) before trading them in. Unsurprisingly, many prisoners got food poisoning!
The most high profile case I worked on was the investigation into the poisoning of the Russian Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210 in 2006. It was a massive inquiry. Around 700 people worked on the investigation and there were a huge number of leads to follow up, spread all over the world. Thankfully, the incident did not become a public health problem but it was still a huge event.
When I moved into public health, my colleagues discovered my love of history. I was asked if I would do a tour on the English physician John Snow and, with no guiding experience, I agreed. I really enjoyed doing it and decided I needed to learn how to guide properly. I applied to do the London Blue Badge course and the rest, as they say, is history. I specialise in bespoke medical and scientific tours of London, ranging from medieval medicine to royal maladies. I do ‘Pox and Penicillin’ tours in Paddington and ‘Brass Plates and Botox’ tours of Harley Street. The most esoteric walk I do is on the lost hospitals of Covent Garden. They were known as the ‘Piddling Ps’ because their names (St Peter’s St Paul’s and St Phillip’s) all started with the letter P and they specialised in bladder stones and other urological diseases.
I retired from Public Health England in 2016, but in April 2020 I went back to the agency as a consultant during the COVID 19 pandemic. I worked with nursing homes, conducting risk assessments and checking they had the provisions they needed. It was an intense few months in the early days of the pandemic when protective equipment and testing was limited. I was pleased to be able to support the London effort and it was great to see many of my old colleagues again. I greatly admired their stamina and professionalism in resolving complex situations in care homes, prisons and schools. Immunisation has been a passion of mine for all my career and I am in awe of the incredible work done to get licensed vaccines in place in one year.
No doubt, we will be recounting details of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak and our response to it in our tours for years to come.