Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Facts and Findings - Scourges of the 19th Century

In their January/February issue Ancestry Magazine had a interesting piece on 19th century diseases. Although sickness can strike anyone, those living in overcrowded conditions, where disease can more easily spread, often bear the brunt:

In the crowded tenements in U.S. cities, poor sanitation helped disease thrive. The late 19th century saw epidemics of typhoid, typhus, smallpox, influenza, and bubonic plague, among others. A lack of understanding of the cause and means of prevention helped two epidemics—cholera and yellow fever—become particularly difficult and persistent.

Cholera reached the United States in the 1830s, as steamship travel and immigration increased. Public sentiment on the diseases, wrote historian Charles Rosenberg in The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, was that cholera “was a scourge not of mankind but of the sinner” and that the disease would target people who engaged in what was considered morally reprehensible activity. “Most Americans did not doubt that cholera was a divine imposition,” said Rosenberg.

Read the full article...

The New York Historical Society recently had an exhibit on New York's cholera outbreaks, which shaped the city that we know today. Here's the New York Times review, and here's the NY Historical's blog on the exhibit, where among other things you can find an 1832 letter from printer William S. Bayley:

On Sunday (yesterday) the Park [City Hall Park] was black with persons anxiously waiting for the day’s report…. It [cholera] has been at No. 5 Walker Street, yesterday No. 9, and there was a case in our block in Church Street. The report to day shows five cases in Walker Street on the other or farther side of the Bowery. In a word, the disease is so completely spread that we were counting yesterday and could not recollect a street in which it had not been with the single exception of Park Place.

Of course, cholera is all too well known in the modern world. Last fall the disease struck more than 16,000 people and killed 780 in Zimbabwe, where clean drinking water is recently hard to come by and some sewer lines have burst. More at the Times.

1 comment:

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