Epidemic: Cholera or ‘Asiatic cholera’

Place: Europe

Date: circa. 1826-1837

Result: hundreds of thousands dead

Summary of the Event

The cholera epidemic of 1826-1837 was but one of six cholera pandemics which struck parts of Asia, Europe, North Africa, and the Americas during the course of the nineteenth century. Originating in India in 1817, the first pandemic spread into the Caucasus of central Asia before petering out in 1823. However, in 1829 the ‘Asiatic cholera’ reappeared in Russia, taking upwards of twenty thousand lives in Astrakhan province during the summer of 1830. After overrunning Russia, it quickly spread to Poland, Hungary, and much of Europe. Cholera took thousands upon thousands of lives, particularly in larger cities such as Paris and London. As the epidemic peaked in 1831-32, social problems connected with industrialization and urbanization exacerbated the deadliness of the disease. Pervasive overcrowding, poor sanitation, and the generally filthy conditions of Europe’s burgeoning cities contributed to high death rates.

Although mortality estimates vary, most records indicate that about 50 percent of those contracting cholera died from it. In 1831-32, cholera took approximately twenty-three thousand lives in England and Wales, twenty thousand in Ireland, and nearly ten thousand in Scotland. The epidemic reached its zenith in the spring and summer months. In 1832, cholera killed more than fifty-five hundred Parisians during one week in April, while in Glasgow, Scotland, it wiped out over twelve hundred in August alone. After reaching peaking in 1832, the epidemic spread into Spain and Portugal (1833), the south of France (1834), and Italy (1835-36). In 1837, it hit Austria, the German states, the Baltic ports, and Poland. Though taking fewer lives after 1833, cholera recurred in most parts of Europe before subsiding in early 1838. A decade passed before an even deadlier cholera epidemic reached western Europe in 1848.

Cholera’s degrading symptoms were particularly disturbing to contemporaries. Describing several early English cases, one observer noted in 1831:

Allison. . . a painter of earthenware. . . was attacked at 4 a.m. on the 5th of August with vomiting and purging of a watery whitish fluid, like oatmeal and water. His hands and feet were cold, his skin covered with clammy sweat, his face livid and the expression anxious, his eyes sunken, his lips blue, thirst excessive, his breath cold, his voice weak and husky, and his pulse almost imperceptible. . . . Arnott, a farm-labourer. . . was seized at 2 a. m. on the 8th of August with precisely the same symptoms, and died in twelve hours.

Severe watery diarrhea (losing up to 4 gallons of fluid per day), intermittent vomiting, extreme thirst, and violent muscle cramps characterized the disease. A description of the death of an English shoemaker in 1831 remarked:

In the middle of the night he was seized with vomiting, and with purging of a fluid like water-gruel in vast quantities; when visited by medical men, he spoke in a husky whisper, his nails were blue, his skin livid, covered by cold sweat, his limbs cramped. The spasms ceased about nine o’clock on Monday morning; about noon he asked to raised in bed, and died as they were raising him.

Once contracted, cholera killed quickly and gruesomely. This new disease reminded many Europeans of the bubonic plague.

Throughout the epidemic, cholera remained a mysterious disease. Little agreement existed regarding its causes or reasons for its spread. Some said it was a general punishment from God, while others claimed that God was rebuking individuals for their sins (e.g., drunkenness, laziness, blasphemy). Still others contended that corrupted air or ‘miasma’ caused the disease. It was established later in the century that cholera spread via polluted water, yet no one understood this connection in the 1830s. Modern medicine has determined that cholera bacilli thrive in warm water, explaining the seasonal nature of the disease.

Since no one knew its true cause, cholera often intensified unrest and suspicions among different segments of society. As it spread across Europe, the lower classes frequently blamed government or medical authorities, precipitating a series of riots and disturbances. Peasants and urban poor contended that the authorities were either poisoning them or purposively allowing the disease to spread in order to reduce their numbers. Throughout Russia and parts of central and eastern Europe, conspiracy theories flourished among the peasantry. Such sentiments blamed the feudal nobility and their agents. In some cases, these fears led to massacres of nobles, military personnel, and other state officials. Although there were no similar anti-government reactions in Britain, several crowds attacked physicians believing that they were purposively allowing deaths to provide human corpses for dissection.

Given the state of medical knowledge, little could be done to fight cholera effectively in the 1830s. Some of many treatments attempted included blood-letting, laudanum (and other forms of opium), and saline solutions (oral and intravenous). Some observers also pointed out the correlation between poverty and disease. Being associated with dirt and filth, cholera expectedly struck the poor in working-class urban slums the hardest. Others noticed that foul bedding and clothing carried the poison which spread the disease. Limited attempts at cleaning up were short-lived, having little impact in European cities. Sanitary reform movements, pushing for improved water-supply and sewage systems, occured later in the century. --Robinson M. Yost

For Further Information:

Bynum, W. F. "Medicine in the community." Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Creighton, Charles. "Asiatic Cholera." in A History of Epidemics in Britain, vol. 2. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1894.

Delaporte, François. Disease and Civilization: The Cholera in Paris, 1832. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986.

Durey, Michael. The Return of the Plague: British Society and the Cholera, 1831-32. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1979.

Evans, Richard J. "Epidemics and Revolutions: Cholera in Ninteenth-Century Europe." Past and Present number 120 (August, 1988): 123-146.

Hays, J. N. "Cholera and Sanitation." in The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

McGrew, Roderick. Russia and the Cholera, 1823-32. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.