Cholera is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, believed to have started in India and mentioned in ancient Indian texts. In 1817, a cholera pandemic erupted near Calcutta, spreading within six years to Europe, followed by four more — killing millions worldwide by the end of the 19th century.
British historian John Brooke describes its horrors:
“Cholera was something of a shock disease. Its effect was both quick and lethal and it carried with it a high percentage of fatalities. The victim could often be dead within hours. The symptoms included violent stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhoea and total prostration during which the body turned cold and blue, the eyes and cheeks sunken and the skin wizened.
“The ‘blue phase’ usually indicated that death was imminent. Of all these, the major symptom was the explosive diarrhoea that produced…‘hugely voluminous stools’ that have an appearance of yellowish water. They are often referred to as rice water stools as they contain evidence of the lining of the intestines.”
No one was really sure what caused cholera until the third pandemic that lasted from 1852 to 1859, ravaging Asia, Europe, North America and Africa — killing 23,000 people in Great Britain alone in 1854 — the worst single year of cholera.
That was the year that British physician John Snow — one of the “fathers of modern epidemiology” — believed that the source of the disease in London was from contaminated water from a public well.
Prevailing belief at that time was that cholera was caused by contaminants in “bad air.” They called it the “miasma theory.”
The 1854 outbreak of cholera in the Soho district of London ended after Snow convinced authorities to remove the handle of the Broad Street pump that he believed was pumping contaminated water. He was right — the hand-operated pump was delivering ground water from an area near a septic pit.
One clue that the pump was the culprit was that no one working at a nearby brewery contracted cholera because they didn’t drink Broad Street water. They were allotted a beer ration every day by the company.
After the cholera subsided in Soho, authorities rejected Snow’s contaminated water theory and replaced the pump handle.
In 1861, Dr. Nottidge Charles MacNamara who served as Surgeon-General of the Indian Medical Service in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay who studied cholera observed:
“Cholera depends on a specific organic infecting matter passed from the bodies of those affected with the disease,” he wrote, “which may be communicated to other human beings, by entering the mouth with drinking water, food, or perhaps suspended in the atmosphere.”
In 1883, German microbiologist Robert Koch, founder of modern bacteriology, studied cholera in Egypt and Calcutta was able to grow the bacterium Vibrio cholerae and proved that it caused cholera if it got into the intestines.
It didn’t take scientists long to figure out that cholera is a serious intestinal disease that can swiftly lead to death, and that unsanitary conditions caused it.
Those conditions were readily found in poor neighborhoods and backward countries. To this day, Africa, Asia and elsewhere are in danger of cholera breaking out at any time.
Cholera is rare in well-developed countries where modern sanitation procedures are firmly established.
Though there are hundreds of strains or “serogroups” of the cholera bacteria, there are fortunately only two strains known to cause outbreaks and epidemics.
Now the story of how cholera came to America:
The 19th century saw seven cholera pandemics, starting with the India pandemic in 1817, then moving to Russia, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Austria, England, Ireland, Canada and the United States. (There were routes to other parts of the world as well.)
In 1832, the second cholera pandemic wave spread through Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Paris and London, then jumped across the Irish sea to infect Ireland, where poverty and lack of sanitation were endemic.
From the Emerald Isle, the disease was carried to Quebec, Ontario, New York City and the reached the Pacific Coast by 1834 — helped by river steamboats and overland trail traffic.
Then in 1845, Ireland was hit again by cholera because of the Potato Famine, caused by a blight that rotted the potatoes, a primary food source — especially for the poor.
Starvation and disease quickly moved in, as government officials in London who had oversight of their Irish colony did next to nothing. Private and government-run soup kitchens couldn’t save thousands from sickness and death.
More than a million Irish headed for Canada and the U.S.; usually sailing across the Atlantic under overcrowded conditions of “dreadful filth and squalor,” sometimes in cargo holds without toilets, according to one Canadian history source.
Some ships promised food but didn’t provide any.
“The long and frequently treacherous Atlantic crossing meant that many in steerage spent from five to 12 weeks in dark, dank, cramped, unsanitary holds which were described by one traveler as ‘filthy, filled with a fetid stench and containing hundreds huddled together like animals.”
The impoverished Irish were no doubt glad see land as their ship sailed into the St. Lawrence and headed for Grosse Ile — Canada’s Ellis Island — only to discover the island to be a nightmare from hell.
University of Chicago researcher G.F. Pyle wrote about what happened next:
“Montreal and Quebec shared the port facilities at Grosse Ile on the St. Lawrence River in 1832, and it was from Grosse Ile the (cholera) epidemic probably entered North America. It spread rapidly down the St. Lawrence River and continued until it reached Lake Champlain in the United States. By the time the epidemic entered Albany, it had traveled both from the north and from New York to the south.
“Meanwhile, the pestilence of Canadian origin moved across Lakes Ontario and Erie to Buffalo, Erie, and Pittsburgh. The time of the year during which Detroit, Chicago, and Rock Island reported outbreaks suggests Canadian origins. However, in many instances the original point of departure may have been New York City.”
Major waterways like the Ohio and the Mississippi river helped spread the disease.
One New England report told a typical cholera story:
“During December 1832, a chest of clothing that had belonged to a sailor, who had died of cholera at a Baltic port, arrived at his home in a small village near Bangor, Me. The chest was opened, the clothing was distributed to his friends, and all who received the garments were taken with cholera and died.”
In the American West, smallpox was by far the deadliest “white man disease,” but cholera was among the others that killed both whites and Native Americans.
The Indians had no immunity against white man diseases that included bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis and whooping cough.
Traveling along river routes and overland trails invariably meant living in unsanitary conditions, creating breeding grounds for cholera.
Osteopathic surgeon Andrew Taylor Still wrote in his autobiography in 1897, “The sudden, explosive nature of cholera epidemics horrified white physicians and native healers alike in their respective attempts to combat the disease.
“Filthy hygienic habits by migrants included eating spoiled meat and drinking and bathing in waste water. Cholera hit the Indians too. One report said the ‘Nomadic Indian tribes suffered the same conditions; as many as one-half of the nomadic Pawnees and two-thirds of the Southern Cheyennes died of cholera between 1849 and 1852.’”
Comanches didn’t have the strength to bury their dead, and Arapahos tell of people committing suicide rather than face the dreaded sickness.
Indians in the Northwest, however, were ravaged more by smallpox and measles than cholera and other diseases.
In 1847, when frontier missionary Marcus Whitman couldn’t cure Indians who had contracted measles, a band of renegade Cayuse and Umatilla Indians murdered him, his wife, Narcissa, and 11 others at their Waiilatpu Mission in Oregon Territory, before kidnapping an additional 53.
By 1923, cholera was generally contained except in India, Russia, the Middle East and northern Africa because of their undeveloped sanitation policies. In India a million died of cholera in 1918 and 1919.
Today, cholera is still prevalent in much of sub-Sahara Africa, southern Asia — where it started — Southeast Asia, Philippines, parts of Indonesia and New Guinea, Central America, Cuba and Haiti.
Despite the cholera, we have much to thank the Irish for.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dr. John Snow didn’t live long enough to see the importance of his work appreciated — dying at age 45. But today he is recognized as the founder of epidemiology and statistical analysis. Though he accurately blamed the cholera epidemic of 1854 in the Soho district of London on contaminated water, it nevertheless probably didn’t save many lives when authorities removed the handle of the Broad Street pump so people couldn’t use it. By that time, the epidemic had already pretty much ended.
Cholera’s silver lining…
According to American University of Paris historian Oleg Kobtzeff, cholera became an important factor in urban planning. “The idea of wider streets and sidewalks came as a result of cholera, as well as having a proper sewage system.” Paris had an underground sewage system by the beginning of the 19th century.
Where is cholera found?
The cholera bacterium is usually found in water or food sources that have been contaminated by feces (poop) from a person infected with cholera. Cholera is most likely to be found and spread in places with inadequate water treatment, poor sanitation, and inadequate hygiene.
“The cholera bacterium may also live in the environment in brackish rivers and coastal waters. Shellfish eaten raw have been a source of cholera, and a few persons in the U.S. have contracted cholera after eating raw or undercooked shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico.”
— Center for Disease Control
Treating cholera the Indian way…
An Encylopedia.com report says, “The Indian’s treatment for cholera was not much more ridiculous than are some of the treatments of some of the so-called doctors of medicine. They dug two holes in the ground, about twenty inches apart.
“The patient lay stretched over the two, — vomit in one hole and purge in the other, and died stretched over the two, thus prepared, with a blanket thrown over him. Here I witnessed cramps which go with cholera dislocate hips and turn legs out from the body. I sometimes had to force the hips back to get the corpse in the coffin.”