Ruth Riley is an educator, writer, and literary enthusiast. She teaches linguistics to college students and also conducts studies about CBD.
In the Victorian era, outbreaks of disease were terrifyingly common. Peasants and royalty alike were affected by contagions that killed huge portions of the population. The epidemic of cholera, in particular, led to medical advancements in understanding that form the modern field of epidemiology.
The reign of Queen Victoria could be considered both a high point and a low point in British history.
It was a period of strength and prosperity due to an expanding colonial empire, but it was also a period of urban deprivation, poverty, and disease. The same factories that made Britain the “workshop of the world” made it a hellscape for urban workers, who often lived in poor conditions without access to basic hygiene.
Medical science was advancing quickly in the Victorian era, but it was still crude compared to medicine today. As rudimentary operations were being done at the Old Operating Theatre, London residents were using the Thames river as a sewer at the same time as they were drawing water from it for their daily needs. There was no widespread understanding that this could cause disease.
This poor medical understanding led to massive deaths from a variety of conditions at the time. It didn’t help that the average London resident was also malnourished and that the air was regularly filled with black smoke from the factories. The common cold, influenza, diphtheria, dysentery, scarlet fever, whooping cough, tuberculosis, as well as rickets, hyperhidrosis and scurvy were common causes of death.
When cholera came around in the 1830s, it caused a wave of panic. Its origins were from the east, from India, and it was much deadlier than the plagues that Londoners were used to. It was an extremely painful disease that caused diarrhea and blue skin that was cold to the touch. It could sometimes kill the sufferer within hours of the appearance of symptoms, and it killed about half of the people it infected.
When it appeared, no one had any idea what the cause of the disease was, or how it could be prevented. It seemed to appear and vanish without reason. The largest of the cholera outbreaks in 1848 claimed more than 60,000 lives.
There was a massive public interest in figuring out how cholera was transmitted, and how people could be protected from it, but there was no public health infrastructure. There was no national health service or publicly funded hospitals. A lot of what we take for granted as medically necessary didn’t exist in the Victorian era.
In 1854, Dr. John snow recorded an outbreak of cholera, cataloging each case geographically, and recording the time and date that they first showed symptoms. He created an “infection map” of London that clearly showed the cases clustering around a single well. When the well was decommissioned and people stopped drinking from it, the cholera outbreak ended.
Although Dr. Snow couldn’t prove that the water in the well was causing cholera – in fact, no one knew the exact cause of the disease until many years later – he was able to use data to drive a health policy decision that saved lives. For this, he is credited as the father of epidemiology.
Four years later, in 1858, the Thames river got so dirty that during the summer it created what Londoners called “the great stink”, in which a terrible smell filled the city. As a result, London put in place a new sewer system that saved countless lives. The advances continued.
One of the most important advancements that came as a result of the cholera outbreaks in the Victorian era was the establishment of public boards of health and state interventions.
The people of London were very resistant to state intervention in their lives. They were used to plagues, poor working conditions, and waves of disease. It took cholera – a deadlier disease that spread quickly – to lead people to establish local health boards to control the water supply, to enforce quarantine protocols, and offer treatments. Medical understanding was still lagging, so many of these treatments, like draining blood with leeches, were ineffective.
However, fear of cholera led British citizens in the Victorian era to embrace more state control over their lives in order to fight the invisible enemy of a pathogen.
In the Victorian era, the medical establishment was in its infancy, and it faced some overwhelming struggles, none of which was more pressing than cholera – a deadly virus from the east that killed quickly and spread mysteriously. The tragic deaths as a result of cholera and the resulting fear led a British public that seemed numb to deaths by plague, to advance medical science and enact reforms that would eventually lead to the field of epidemiology and the establishment of national health services.