Climate Change and Disease – Cholera and American Society

Mobilizing Against an Invisible Enemy

41w-449As word of the blue death circulated across Atlantic, the realities of urban life became real. Surrounded by filth, refuse, and the decaying waste of the city – all reminders of the reason pestilence visited those high-borne European metropolises – people experienced panic, dread, fear, and disgust. Textiles, hides, or any other items exported from Russia or Prussia Shipped across the oceans came under the strictest quarantine.[1] The risk of exposure to the public was too great to be ignored, doing so was sure to bring cholera to these American shores. Tenants in slums worked to clear the streets as fast as possible and make up for years of neglectful grime. Newspapers told of failing quarantines in Russia, where soldiers stood guard to prevent travelers and refugees from coming of fleeing. Despite all their efforts, all the quack concoctions peddled on streets and all the musings of Christendom, nothing could stop the cholera from reaching into every facet of life in nineteenth century America. In the air, the perceived threat commingled with anxiety while authorities grappled with their inability to find reason or pattern, much less a patentable cure, for this deadly disease. New York City governor, Walter Bowne, dispatched three of the best surgeons in the city to learn as much as possible before the first cases struck.[2] England was already in the throes of cholera and provided the best source of medical knowledge on the subject; although new to its shores, British physicians had experienced cholera decades earlier in India. France had descended into outright anarchy when cholera forced a revolution. But none yet knew that the greatest vector of this disease into society was the sailors, merchants, and soldiers of those European nations.tambora-cover.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smart

The roots of cholera, and the reason it evolved into this highly transmittable form, has origins in geological events. In his book, Tambora: the eruption that changed the world, Gillen D’Arcy Wood presents a sweeping account of life in the early nineteenth century in the wake of a major volcanic event. Mt. Tambora, located on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, exploded in April 1816 billowing tons of volcanic debris into the atmosphere; it would have far-reaching effects on the climate and human civilizations. Wood’s book leaves out no detail on the miserable condition of nations on the brink of starvation. A central theme of Tambora is the impact of climate change on the natural ecological balance and the consequences of upsetting that balance on the human population. All of the biosphere is affected by climatic changes, even down to the microbial level, which can produce anthropological effects. Even the smallest organism can have an enormous consequence on the wide world.

In the summer of 1816, after circumnavigating the globe, ash from Mt. Tambora caused monsoonal rains to come late in southeast Asia – with catastrophic results for agriculture. Cold, snowy summers, erratic meteorological patterns, and hazy skies confounded nearly every society in the northern hemisphere; today, we refer to this climatic response as a volcanic winter.[3] Advances in the study of meteorology have helped us understand the implications of such events and the cause-effect relationship those events have on the world at large. At the time of the eruption, however, there was no single explanation for the odd weather and no connection made to a volcano in an otherwise unknown part of the world. However, the British physician James Jameson made some links between the 1817 cholera outbreak and the weather experienced in Bengal and greater India. His theorizations about climate-induced endemic disease gained and lost traction until recent times, when research into pathogenic etiology lent credibility to it once again. These studies proved that cholera outbreaks were climate driven and highly dependent on climate change.[4]

435px-Paul_Fürst,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holländer_version).pngTheories posited between 1817 and 1835 had reached little consensus as to the nature of cholera’s mode of transmission. Quarantining in Europe was the first line of defense in unaffected nations, but economic interests made such measures fruitless as merchants and businessmen circumvented them and applied pressure to governments to reopen trade. Indicus stated in his letter that the transfer of goods and material as the only method of transmission is unfounded. He argued that such a scenario was possible, but that person-to-person was just likely as object-to-person transmittance.[5] However, there was an understanding that cholera could spread through contaminated objects which explains the quarantining of goods brought to New York City and London. Seemingly interrelated evidence suggested that miasma – noxious smells that were believed to carry disease with them –  and contagion were equally viable culprits, but the methodologies diffed within each school of thought.[6]

Every cholera pandemic in the nineteenth century began in India, so Europeans blamed Indians for creating and spreading cholera.[7] Among the British and other western nations cholera was the responsibility of the basest Indian poor and squalid living conditions. Hindu religion became the image of the disease; Muslim pilgrims and a lack of British governmental regulation in India and the Asian continent were also to blame. Troop movements and pilgrimages were recognized as a leading cause for cholera’s spread, establishing non-Westerners as agents of disease.[8]

The cleanliness of New York, or severe lack of it, was apparent to its residents and government; it was often compared to other cities in the northeast, falling short of their “exemplary” sanitation. General filth, the thinking went, bred not only pestilence but also vice and tarnished the collective conscience of the city and the nation. Americans need only look to France; as the cholera raged there, so did the increases of violence, chaos, and depravity.[9] In England, the same ideology prevailed. Although writing after the 1832 outbreak, Charles Dickens echoed the moral dilemmas of pollution and filth his 1848 story Dombey and Son, a short story series that first appeared in newspapers. The story provides a glimpse into the moral conscience of Londoners where “vitiated air” of urban filth is extended to a “moral pestilence” spreading

“depravity, impiety, drunkenness, theft, murder, and a long train of nameless sins against the natural affections and repulsions of mankind… creeping on, to blight the innocent and spread contagion among the pure… Then should we stand appalled to know, that where we generate disease to strike our children down and entail itself on unborn generations, there also we breed… infancy that knows no innocence, youth without modesty of shame, maturity that is mature in nothing but in suffering…”[10]

The fear that affluent neighborhoods might also become centers of moral decay, prompted response from the upper-class community before cholera had a chance to spread too deeply in the slums. The risk was not that it affected the corrupt, but that cholera caused corruption and therefore preceded moral decline.

Historian Steven Johnson discusses the social effects of cholera in 1850s London.


[1] “Trade with Russia – the Cholera Morbus,” The Standard, May 24, 1831,

[2] Rosenberg, Charles E. The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, c1987.

[3] Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (Princeton, UNITED STATES: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[4] Wood.

[5] Indicus. “Origin and Progress of Cholera.” Edited by Leigh Hunt. Examiner; London, no. 1222 (July 3, 1831): 426–426.

[6] Hamlin, Cholera; Echenberg, Africa in the Time of Cholera; Rosenberg, The Cholera Years; Michelle Elizabeth Allen, Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008).

[7] Hamlin

[8] Morris, R. J. Cholera 1832: The Social Response to an Epidemic. Croom Helm Social History Series. London: Croom Helm, 1976.

[9]  Rosenberg

[10] Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (New York: Mershon co, 1848): 220



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