Cholera fears rife

PUBLISHED: 16:33 24 May 2007 | UPDATED: 12:28 04 May 2010

As I discussed a few weeks ago the subject of health focuses the attention of a nation, particularly during times of epidemic. Black Death and plague was the scourge of those living in medieval times and outbreaks of the dreaded disease were to continue i

As I discussed a few weeks ago the subject of health focuses the attention of a nation, particularly during times of epidemic. Black Death and plague was the scourge of those living in medieval times and outbreaks of the dreaded disease were to continue into the late Stuart period.

Epidemics in the eighteenth century appear to have been "more scattered and isolated". But despite this a serious threat to health in the eighteenth century was from smallpox, diphtheria and influenza. In the first two decades of the nineteenth century there had been a marked decline in these illnesses and, indeed, smallpox appeared to be now controllable by the new practice of vaccination. However the 1820's witnessed serious outbreaks of both smallpox and typhus, and was to be a foretaste of the pestilential turbulence of the next two decades.

As the Black Death had filled medieval people with mortal dread, the threat of cholera was the nineteenth century fear. Cholera was a highly infectious and often fatal intestinal disease that was endemic in India. The most frightening aspect of cholera was the speed at which those infected died. The alarming symptoms were a sudden onset of diarrhoea which increased in intensity and was soon followed by vomiting, thirst and dehydration, severe cramps in the arms, legs, and stomach; the victim's skin would change to a sort of bluish grey hue and the eyes would sink into the sockets.

The symptoms of the disease were like nothing doctors had witnessed before, manifesting themselves within three to twelve hours. Death would follow within a day, sometimes in only hours. All conventional precautions to stop the spread of Cholera caused even greater fear and panic. Nobody knew what to do, how to prevent it, or, of course, what caused it.

The first outbreak of Asiatic cholera in this country took place in October 1831 at houses on the quayside in Sunderland, on the Durham coast. It had arrived from ports in the northeast of Russia. From here the spread of the disease could be tracked across the country northwards into Scotland and southward towards London. By the time it had run its course 52,000 people had perished.

Of course statistically this was far fewer than the Black Death, but the mass panic was none the less. For five years the Cholera had spread from Bengal across the whole of Europe and all watched in horror unable to come up with a solution or cure. Therefore once it reached Sunderland everyone was well aware of what was to follow, but defenceless to act.

The eighteenth century had seen a rise in scientific understanding with an increasing number of medical schools and research. The main problem was that these men (women were barred from medical training) did not know the cause of disease and how it was spread. Two theories abounded at the time.

The 'contagionists' believed cholera was spread by personal contact, or via clothes or bedding. Whilst the 'miasmatists' were convinced that cholera was carried through the air, like an infectious mist. Many people adhered to the latter; they only had to look at the filthy and squalid living conditions of the industrial working classes in the large towns and cities that had grown up during the Industrial Revolution.

In 1842, some 10 years after the first outbreak of cholera in Britain, a report stated "the various forms of epidemic... are caused, or aggravated... chiefly among the labouring class by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings."

Ely might have regarded itself as a safe and remote haven away from the industrial hell holes in other parts of the country, but as we shall see, even this Fen backwater did not escape the cholera.

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