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Letter to the Editor Regarding Cholera

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 8 months ago





Letter to the Editor by Robert Bowie, The Times of London, March 12, 1832.





              Commentary on the Text


This letter from Robert Bowie discusses cholera, which first reached England in 1831. Mr. Bowie expresses the opinion that the Central Board of Health has little interest in finding the true source of the disease; he is writing the Editor of the Times in the hopes to draw attention to a possible source of communication of cholera: the manure which fills ships frequently docking on the coasts.


Epidemic or Asiatic Cholera is an acute illness which is characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping. Left untreated, 40-60% of patients die as a result of severe dehydration and shock, often within hours of onset of symptoms. Cholera is contracted through food or water contaminated by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium (OED, CDC).


The cholera epidemic of 1831-1832 was the first of multiple cholera epidemics to occur in England. This first epidemic took the lives of 22,000 people. Prevailing opinions of the mid-nineteenth century held that either a contagion or miasma was responsible for spread of the disease. The contagion theory depended on spread based on person to person contact, while the miasma theory described a spread via infected air. By the late 1840s it was fairly decided that miasma was responsible.  The solution was to cover offending odors with perfumes, satchels, and the like. This had no effect on the communication of cholera, as it did not address the bacterium responsible for the transmission of the illness (Hayward, Torgerson).


The miasma theory also seemed to explain why people in the working- and lower-classes were stricken with cholera at a greater rate than the rest of the population. The emergence of social medicine, which describes how social factors affect health, matched well with this disease which seemed particularly cruel to poor people, who lived in close (and often not especially clean) quarters (Wikipedia). It was not until John Snow’s studies in 1849 that the reality was suggested: cholera, spread by water (not infected air), infected the lower classes at the rate it did because more people would depend on the same infected water source. Snow’s findings were a result of studies during the second cholera epidemic which struck a decade into the Victorian Period. His theory of mode of communication for cholera was essentially unproven and therefore doubted, until his findings proved useful to aid preventative measures during the third cholera epidemic, in 1854 (Snow 11-13).


The letter to the editor from Robert Bowie essentially reiterates all of the misconceptions about cholera that lasted well into the Victorian Period. Bowie, a surgeon, writes of a “cholera ship” called the Dover. This ship served as an off-shore hospital in which to house patients stricken with cholera. The idea was that the patients could be isolated from healthy people and the spread of cholera would be halted (according to the contagion theory) but in actuality the infected source most often remained wherever the patient had been removed from.


Robert Bowie cites fear as a major cause of mortality with the illness. He remarks that because of the claim of a contagion associated with cholera, people are afraid to help the ill for fear that they might contract the illness themselves. While it is now clear that this is not the case, at the time many people in any area would often fall ill at the same time, a fact that perpetuated the contagion theory.


Robert Bowie’s decision that manure was responsible for the epidemic was aligned with the rest of the medical community until John Snow proved otherwise. Manure, with its “most offensive effluvia” (Bowie) was a major source of the miasma theory. “Effluvia” describes the fetid vapor which rose from the manure, infecting the air (Dictionary.com).  The Central Board of Health created crews to clean up city areas with similar effluvium, in an attempt to lessen the spread of cholera.


Bowie also expresses some derision towards the Central Board of Health. The board was created at times of need to address health issues; this specific board arose in 1831 to address the cholera epidemic. The Central Board of Health had suggestions to offer, but little power to enforce them. The board, having denied the presence of the cholera epidemic for nearly half of its two year duration, had little support once it admitted the existence of the epidemic. Bowie suggests that the Board looks into his manure/miasma theory, but any efforts the Board made in that direction would not have had an effect on the cholera epidemic (Higgens).


The people of England had the reprieve of more than a decade before they were assaulted by cholera again. It wasn’t until nearly twenty years later that true science entered into the study, prevention, and treatment of diseases such as cholera.






              Works Cited


Bowie, Robert. Letter. Times of London Mar 13, 1832.


“Cholera.” Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases. 6 October 2005. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 11 February 2008 <http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/cholera_g.htm#How%20does%20a%20person%20get%20cholera>.


"Cholera." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 9 February 2008  <http://dictionary.oed.com.ezproxy.library.wwu.edu/cgi/entry/50038826?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=cholera&first=1&max_to_show=10 >.


“Cholera Epidemic of 1831.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 8 November 2007. 10 February 2008. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cholera_epidemic_of_1831>.


"Contagion." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 11 Feb. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/contagion>.


"Effluvia." Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 11 Feb. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/effluvia>.


Hayward, Andrew. Cholera-History. University of Pittsburg. 9 February 2008. <www.publichealth.pitt.edu/supercourse/SupercoursePPT/1011-2001/1151.ppt>.


Higgens, Robert McR. “The 1832 cholera epidemic in East London.” TTHOL. 10 February 2008. <http://www.mernick.co.uk/thhol/1832chol.html>.


Snow, John. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. Oct. 1849: 1-13. 10 February 2008. <http://www.deltaomega.org/snowfin.pdf>.


“Social Medicine.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 8 July 2007. 11 February 2008. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_medicine>. 


Torgerson, Beth. Reading the Brontë Body: Disease, Desire, and the Constraints of Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


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