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Cholera Morbus Mortality Lists

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 2 months ago


Cholera Morbus Mortality Lists from The Times of London



Published in The Times of London, April 9, 1832

Published in The Times of London, May 1, 1832



Notes on the Text


Burker: refers to a person who sells dead bodies to medical facilities for dissection. Derived from the Edinburgh murderers William Burke and William Hare, who killed people for four years and sold their victim’s bodies to local anatomy schools for dissection.


Central Board of Health, Whitehall: set up after the first Cholera outbreak emerged in England in late 1831 to advise on ways to fight cholera.


Cholera Morbus: considered the “true” form of Cholera, or the one most widely experienced during the Cholera epidemics in England during the 19th Century. Cholera Morbus is the form of Cholera referred to in the list above.


Commentary on the Text


Cholera first entered the English awareness when an epidemic of the disease reached Britain in late 1831. People called this form of the disease the “Asiatic cholera,” which they believed originated in India in 1818; 13 years later the epidemic reached the continent of Europe. England already faced other, often more fatal, diseases on a daily basis such as typhus, typhoid, and influenza. Items concerning the ever present mortality rate, such as the Cholera Morbus, appeared daily in the papers showing the rate of demise of the population. Around 1000 people were reported dead monthly, as shown above. The symptoms accompanying cholera were deadly including, “profuse diarrhea, severe dehydration, collapse” (TB & Outbreaks Weekly). The rise of these epidemics frightened the general population; it was believed that one disease would lead to another. It was widely accepted that influenza, a cold, was an early stage of cholera. Furthermore, cholera seemed to be a classless disease having “the potential to attack the rich and influential as well as the poor and destitute”which frightened all factions of the public by disregarding their station in society (Brown, Burrell, and Gill).


Unfortunately, neither the public nor the medical community had a solid understanding of the real causes or treatment of cholera. Some people believed that the epidemic was an “Act of God.” The germ theory having been recently introduced, others believed that the disease was spread by the very smell of the dead bodies. In fact, Parliament would only be held if the windows were covered by clothes soaked in disinfectant, in the hopes that this would keep out the smell, and thus the disease. Of course, this was no help whatsoever. Contaminated water was actually behind the spread of the disease, and with sordid sewage conditions in the cities, the disease continued to spread in epic proportions. This was not grasped by doctors, however, who attempted to treat cholera with bleeding, opium, and brandy. While opiates had the potential to relax a patient or temporarily relieve his or her symptoms, none of these “cures” had any real medical efficacy and served to dehydrate the patient further.


Another medical debate surfacing during the height of the epidemic was the contagion vs. anticontagion theory, which centered around the question of whether cholera was contagious or not. In her article outlining the specifics of this theory, Tina Young Choi offers this comparison: “While contagionists argued that diseases were caused by contact between diseased individuals and the healthy, anticontagionists, by contrast asserted that disease was purely environmental in origin and spread through populations because of common exposure to any number of causes, such as miasmas, swamps, dampness, or impure food” (Choi, Literature and Medicine). The contagion theory was of particular interest to the public, as it spread through everyday actions that seemed non-threatening in common life. Fearing something as simple as washing laundry could infect and kill a person, the danger of the epidemic was heightened.  


In order to better understand the disease, or any disease for that matter, it was customary for doctors to examine the corpses of those who had died from each malady. These cadavers were not always readily available, and some doctors resorted to unsavory methods of obtaining the bodies they needed for their research. (See “Burker,” defined above.) When word spread of these wrongdoings, the public was outraged. In Liverpool especially, which was the hardest-hit city of England in terms of the epidemic, the public expressed their anger with eight raging riots spanning two weeks in May and June of 1832. The participants rallied around cholera hospitals, yelling collectively “Bring out the Burkers!” and throwing rocks, often endangering not only the doctors, but also their patients. The rioters feared that the doctors were going to steal the bodies for research, even murdering their patients. This practice was not unheard of (one man made a profit by selling over a thousand bodies); they had a reason to be as infuriated as they were.


The cholera outbreak of 1832 became a wake up call for many and attempted to take action to end this disease once and for all. The first well-known major health act was The Public Health Act passed in 1848. The mission for this act was to organize the drainage system and add improvements on water supply and cleansing. However, this act did not go as successfully as planned mostly due to finance and the logistics of the drainage system.


With the failure of the Public Health Act, many towns in London began opening up their own health care systems. The Central Board of Health was established in London, allowing local councils to elect their own local boards of health. Lodging houses also took action and after much petitioning, thirteen towns had new sewer systems built. The Public Health Act of 1848 was seen as an encouragement to have each town speak out individually for a cleaner environment.


The country became more and more cautious about the disease and feared that a larger cholera epidemic would reemerge. Because of this fear, they created the Sanitary Act of 1866, after the last testing of water supply was complete. However, the Act of 1866 did not succeed for it carried the same characteristics as the Health Act of 1848 with a greater emphasis on each town controlling a smaller part of the sewage system. Despite these unsuccessful acts, the mortality rate in 1866 was the lowest of all the previous Cholera epidemics and people became more aware of their health and the environment around them. The outbreak of Cholera created positive advancements in the medical and public health spheres of the Victorian era by showing people the importance of cleanliness and health.


Works Cited



Burrell, S. “Sociology Research; Liverpool cholera riots of 1832 demonstrate the

            Complex social response to epidemic disease.” TB & Outbreaks Weekly. 22 Nov

            2005: 72.

Choi, Tina Young. “Narrating the unexceptional: The art of medical inquiry in

            Victorian England and the present.” Literature and Medicine. 22.1 (2003): 65-84.

Brown, Jody,  Sean Burrell, and Geoffrey Gill. “Fear and frustration—the Liverpool

            Cholera riots of 1832.” The Lancet. 358.9277 (2001): 233-8.



For Additional Reading


Burrell, Sean and Geoffrey Gill. “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic of 1832 and

            Anatomical Dissection—Medical Mistrust and Civil Unrest.” Journal of the

            History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 60.4 (2005): 478-498.

Douglas, Laurelyn. “Health and Hygiene in the Nineteenth Century.” The Victorian Web.

            11 Feb 2008 <http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health10.html>.

Gill, Geoff. “Cholera and the fight for public health reform in mid-Victorian England.’

            Historian. 2000: 10-17.

Landow, George P. “’The new and fatal disease’ – Thomas Arnold on the 1832 Cholera.”

The Victorian Web. 11 Feb 2008 <http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/arnold/6.html>.



Project Group Members


Member Name



 Lauren Cole

Western Washington University

Eng 310: Love and Money in the Nineteenth Century British Novel

 Samantha Cooper

Western Washington University


Eng 310: Love and Money in the Nineteenth Century British Novel

 Heidi Dong


Western Washington University


Eng 310: Love and Money in the Nineteenth Century British Novel







     Project Completed: Winter 2008








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Comments (1)

Anonymous said

at 3:07 am on Apr 30, 2008

I really enjoyed this subject matter, not only because I'm fascinated by medicine in general but also because, even though I have heard of some practices, the information in your analysis really brought the pieces together for me. One point I thought was especially interesting was the comment on the rioting in Liverpool. However, it does feel as you are indicating that people were killed and taken for the advancement of science, if that is true, it would add fascination to your commentary.

I have thought about the sewage system before and have often wondered how they figured out that the water was contaminated. Thank you for your research, I had fun reading it!

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