Urban Disasters: 19th c. Cholera

Use the 4 most important or interesting articles you find on the history of cholera and industrialization in the UK in the 18th and 19th c. to write a short essay (300-600 words). Explain the historical significance of the articles you chose, focusing on how your chosen articles show change over time. Your essay should lead you to a new insight; something you didn’t know before doing these article searches. It should also take into account the perspective of the sources that you use. Remember: in order to use these historical newspaper articles as primary sources, we need to be concerned with how they represent what people thought and were aware of at the time–you are not just using them to collect facts about cholera outbreaks.

Essay is due in a comment post on the Digital History Lab blog (http://digitalhistorylab.com) by September 9th at 9pm.


  1. The Connection Between Contagion and Fear of “Outsiders”

    The articles I chose all focused on the idea of Cholera as a contagion. Although we learned that Cholera was thought to come from the air around the Thames river, I had no idea that this thinking spread a lot further than that. The first article I chose was a message to the Lord High Chancellor of England, written on June 16, 1831. This article talks about quarantine, which was a bit surprising. I didn’t know the extent to which they believed in quarantine as a solution. Pairing this with a fear of Cholera being a contagion it makes more sense, knowing that people were scared and desperate to do just about anything they could think of to push back the disease. Even the author of this letter believed that quarantine would ‘purify’ the suspected people., saying that it was the only way to truly prevent the disease.

    Doctors were quick to come up with their own solutions, often disputing and contradicting one another. On July 2, 1831, Dr. Walker visited cities in Russia in hopes of gaining information on the disease. He learned that people were convinced that the disease wasn’t their fault – that it was brought to them by boat. This idea could have come from the fact that the first people who seemed to be effected were boatmen, and then later on people in the towns starting contracting the disease. Thus, the doctor believed that it was a contagion that had to be spread by men. Another doctor, Dr. Albers, was also in Russia for the same reason. He put a Cholera victim and a healthy person in the same bed, and the disease didn’t spread. The two even used the same water to bathe in and the disease didn’t spread. Using this evidence, he gathered the conclusion that Cholera was not contagious.
    The next article gave me some insight as to what someone in the general public thought about the Cholera disease. By March 06, 1832, it seems that this man thought that Cholera was not a contagion. However, he was still unsure of the root cause of it and came upon the conclusion that the disease was present because of something beyond the control of humans. By September 4, 1834, people were still convinced that the disease must be a contagion. M. Costello goes to extreme lengths to protect the Queen because he is a ‘contagionist’.

    Seeing the outbreak of Cholera through the eyes of different people located in different areas gives a wider view of what different people were thinking at the time. People struggled in finding (and believing) the cause of Cholera, instead wanting to believe that it must be a crazy contagion. The people seemed to have wanted to believe that nothing they did could cause this, that it was the result of some outsider bringing goods from other locations.

    Articles, in order:

  2. The (Lack of) Progression in Cholera Medicine

    While engineering and science played key roles in solving London’s cholera outbreak of the 1800’s, medicine did not. Supposed cures and treatments were abundant, but they struggled to do more than provide temporary relief. Despite the widespread death and sickness plaguing London, there was little to no improvement in the quality of treatment provided to its occupants between the years of 1830 and 1860 as seen through the scope of the world-renowned newspaper The London Times.

    Certain early treatments boasted success, however their methodologies seem very primitive, especially compared to modern medicine. In an 1831 letter to the editor of the Times, Surgeon Thomas Hope suggests he has discovered a cure for cholera. Dr. Hope describes this medicinal cure as “one drachm of nitrous acid, one ounce of peppermint water or camphor mixture, and 40 drops of tincture of opium” and suggests, “the belly should be covered with a succession of hot cloths [dry]” (28 May 1831). While Dr. Hope’s remedy does seem more scientific than numerous other remedies present in that time, its effectiveness is rather questionable. In the modern day, the United States Food and Drug Administration is yet to approve opium tincture as safe or reliable despite its supposed benefits (“Opium Tincture”). It is also difficult to see how warm, dry towels and small doses of peppermint water could cure a life-threatening disease in which the body suffers an extreme loss of liquid. Another treatment article, released the following year of 1832, suggests an even more far-fetched remedy. The writer, identified as Dr. Quin, recommends “one part of gum camphor to six parts of strong spirit of wine” as a treatment for early stages of cholera (23 Feb. 1832). While the prescription of some strong drinks may have provided temporary relief for the patient, it likely accomplished little else.

    Unfortunately for Londoners, as time passed, the available treatment options for cholera largely stagnated. In an article published in 1854, well after both Hope’s and Quin’s articles, a man named Dr. George Johnson who worked at King’s’ College Hospital published an article describing the treatment of cholera via doses of castor oil administered by mouth once every half hour (9 Sept. 1854). While Dr. Johnson suggests that his success rate was high, it is difficult to posit that the medicine had a significant effect, or that it was the only factor leading to recovery. General hospital treatment may have played an equal part in improving the patient’s health. The FDA categorizes castor oil as a laxative, and patients who suffered from cholera would end up very dehydrated. Thus, the use of castor oil could have potentially just put patients in more trouble (“Ingredients List“). An 1855 health report denounced the use of castor oil as a legitimate treatment option, but then went on to mention remedies including the consumption of foods like ginger and rice water. This report also suggested the same opium tincture that Dr. Hope wrote about over twenty years prior was still being used as treatment (2 June 1855). There was clearly no consensus among doctors, or real progress being made towards dependable medicine.

    There was little development in the treatment of cholera between the years of 1830 and 1860 despite the massive loss of life taking place in London. This lack of progress may have been largely due to limitations in science at the time, as similar remedies were suggested nearly thirty years apart. Eventually, solutions to the cholera dilemma came around first through engineering – specifically the development of the sewer system – and later in medicine, leaving London Cholera free.


    “Cholera Morbus.” Times [London, England] 23 Feb. 1832: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

    GEORGE JOHNSON. “Treatment of Cholera by Castor Oil.” Times [London, England] 9 Sept. 1854: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

    “Ingredient List A-C August 2006.” OTC Ingredient List (n.d.): n. pag. http://Www.fda.gov. Aug. 2006. Web. 5 Sept. 2016. .

    “Opium Tincture – FDA Prescribing Information, Side Effects and Uses.” Opium Tincture – FDA Prescribing Information, Side Effects and Uses. N.p., Nov. 2015. Web. 05 Sept. 2016.

    “The Treatment Of Cholera.*.” Times [London, England] 2 June 1855: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

    THOMAS HOPE. “Cholera Morbus.” Times [London, England] 28 May 1831: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 Sept. 2016.

    Words: 598, excluding title & sources

  3. The Protective Effects of Bad Smells

    I chose articles that found very strange connections between cholera and the gas production facilities in London. Article number 1 claimed “The miasma which, under certain atmospheric conditions, strikes a strong man down as if shot in battle cannot be ordinarily innocuous, and most certainly is not.” It hints at strong smelling gasses being possibly the cause of the cholera outbreaks. One such source of strong smelling gases were the city gasworks, which produced gas for lamps and heating. They also produced horrendous smelling byproducts, such as coal tar and sulfur among others.

    Article 2 is a rebuttal by an operator of a gas producing facility, blaming the smells on the nearby ditch. It also claims, “After adducing a mass of statistics to show that the vicinity … is the healthiest part of the city.” It later goes on to ask if escaping the cholera is worth the noxious odors produced by the gasworks. This is hugely important. It goes directly against the prevailing theory of the cholera being caused by the noxious miasma.

    Article 3 is more evidence towards the gasworks being beneficial to the health of their workers and the vicinity. “during the time that the cholera prevailed to such an extent, not one of the men employed in the manufacture of gas, or in the immediate vicinity of the works, suffered the slightest inconvenience or ill-health”. This further reinforces the idea of the gasworks somehow preventing the cholera, even at the height of the epidemic, there were no cases in the vicinity, only complaints of the smell.

    Article 4 is a report from a report from a person who had just returned from a trip to Holland to investigate a disease that been ravaging their cattle. It explains the treatments used to combat the disease, among them sulfuric acid and coal tar being used as disinfectants. The very same byproducts of the gas production products are being used effectively as antibacterial treatments in Holland. The gasworks would often just dump their waste products into the ditches and gullies where we know the cholera bacteria would live while waiting to infect a human host, thus inadvertently protecting their surrounding neighborhood from the disease.

    1. “One of the greatest improvements of the age is.” Times [London, England] 25 Sept. 1850: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.
    2. “The case of the City of London Gas Company is.” Times [London, England] 20 Oct. 1856: 8. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.
    3. “The City Gasworks.” Times [London, England] 18 Oct. 1856: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.
    4. JAMES CAIRD, and “EDWARD HAMILTON. “The Cattle Plague.” Times [London, England] 7 Nov. 1865: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

  4. Slowness in Dealing with Epidemics

    In the early 1820’s, several outbreaks of cholera had occurred in some of the British colonies and many people in the colonies feared this terrible disease was spreading. News had reached London from the Cape of Good Hope that all ships coming from the farther colonies would be “subjected to a rigorous quarantine” (May 16, 1820) so the illness, which was in some of the farther colonies, would not continue to reach toward closer colonies. At this time, it seemed as though the people of Britain didn’t seem concerned for their own safety. They believed it was only happening in another part of the world even despite claims that cholera had basically prevailed over one of the colonies. I found it quite interesting how little attention it seemed to be given. It seemed to be just in the back of people’s minds, or at least in this article it is seems like this is happening.

    In the early 1830’s though, some people in England started to pay more attention to the outbreak that now stretched through parts of Russia and even into parts of Europe. The “ravages of cholera” (June 16, 1831) had gained more attention due to its danger of reaching England at last and also due to the slight affects it had now caused on commerce. People were afraid of the disease reaching home, but also felt a bit safer because of the safety regulations put in place such as quarantining of people and goods in order to contain the contagion. People began to understand the disease traveled by water ways, which was how it spread through Russia. However, there was little talk of improving British public health and infrastructure in order to prevent or contain the disease once it could possibly reach the city. (June 16, 1831)

    By the early to mid- 1840’s, Britain had finally started to talk about changing the infrastructure in order to fix the problem that had now reached their own shores. The population was fully aware of the fact that the sanitary conditions in London were the problem. In the Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population the writer directly addresses the problems which seem to cause the spread of the disease of the city citing that places with better sewer systems were seeing far fewer fatalities than areas without great sewage systems. People were scared due to the recent outbreaks in the city causing many fatalities. The author also points out “the cholera was almost, if not altogether, as fatal as the plagues of our own metropolis formerly were.” (August 30, 1842) This brings attention to the fact that the people knew the cause and were afraid and were not able to bring about changes to the infrastructure.

    Finally by the mid 1860’s, new infrastructure had been built in the city and in The Sanitary Condition of the City the author points out even in districts of the city known for high death rates, the death rates had all declined past where they had been before. People were conscientious about the disease reappearing after it had come back in some other minor cities in the past.

    Thus, people grew more and more aware over time. They were looking to continually improve the sanitation of their city in order to prevent things like the massive cholera outbreaks from happening again.

    “It is fully expected that his Majesty will visit Plymouth this summer, agreeably to his avowed intention of doing so.” Times [London, England] 16 May 1820: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
    “Money-Market and City Intelligence.” Times [London, England] 16 June 1831: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
    “Sanitary Condition Of The City.” Times [London, England] 18 Oct. 1865: 11. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.
    “Sanatory Condition Of The Labouring Population.” Times [London, England] 30 Aug. 1842: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

  5. Public Opinion on Sewers

    With the great expansion in London’s population in the 19th century, there became a very large need for sewer infrastructure to deal with the mass amounts of waste that would be produced. This sewage problem directly relates to the cholera epidemics we read about, so I was curious to understand the public opinion on sewers as it relates to cholera from the 1830s to the 1860s. I used The Times Digital Archive to do this, looking specifically at the Editorial and Commentary section which gives a window into people’s thoughts at the time.

    The 1831 letter to the editor begins with the writer thinking writing a letter to the editor would be much more effective than if they had written to the Parochial Board of Health directly. In the letter, the writer wants to call attention to the lack of proper drainage in some parts of Westminster. The writer notes only one house has a drain, while the inhabitants of all the rest have to throw their waste into the street. Interestingly, the writer goes on to mention the practice may attract cholera (though does not say how much so). This is just one example to show even in relatively early times, some people did make a connection between a lack of proper drainage/sewers and cholera, despite not knowing if the smells or sewage itself caused cholera (“To The Editor Of The Times.”, 1831).

    Almost two decades later, in 1849, an editorial was written in the midst of a cholera epidemic. The writer in this article seems to plead for something to be done, noting “the necessity of using every precaution to arrest the further spread of the epidemic.” At the time, the miasma theory was still popular, and was used in this case. The writer speculates that bad smelling sewers and other places where bad smelling water collects are most likely to be infected with cholera, and the hardest to get rid of. Yet again, the writer proposes that “fundamental alterations” made to the drainage systems could get rid of cholera forever. However, this time the writer concedes that the London sewer system will take “many years” to change (“The cholera still continues to maintain its average.”, 1849).

    A few years later in 1853, another epidemic breaks out, with the writer of this editorial personifying cholera as an enemy and stranger that the people of London are responsible for. While this article does not deal with sewers directly, it does have a strong tone of frustration and anguish, particularly with how devastating cholera is and the continuing lack of preparation. Some of this preparation may include improving sewage systems, a recurring request in letters to the editor (“So, the Asiatic cholera is again among us! It is.”, 1853).

    By 1866, public thought has shifted from the need to improve drainage to actually taking action and improving it, along with water quality. The writer discusses this shift at the beginning of the letter, noting the religious belief of using rivers to “carry off accumulations of filth” has been overruled by experience showing this was not a good belief to follow. The writer eventually brings up an important challenge of the time: how to properly purify the polluted waterways. However, the effort proved very costly and inefficient, as the writer describes. Thus, the new effort focused on preserving whatever pure streams were left, which was controversial for some. This controversy led to a lawsuit over drainage rights, and the writer ends with “the question of household drainage has entered on an entirely new phase.” (“Drains.”, 1866)

    _Works Cited_

    CIVIS. “To The Editor Of The Times.” Times [London, England] 30 Nov. 1831: 3. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

    P. S. “Drains.” Times [London, England] 4 July 1866: 10. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

    “So, the Asiatic cholera is again among us! It is.” Times [London, England] 15 Sept. 1853: 6. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

    “The cholera still continues to maintain its average.” Times [London, England] 28 Aug. 1849: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

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