cholera-in-slums-1866-granger

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Known as ‘King Cholera’ due to the way in which the disease mastered, controlled and decided the fate the people it struck, “Indian” cholera, as it was also known, was particularly feared as it seemed to just appear suddenly and, equally suddenly, vanish again. This dreaded disease, whose Greek name means “yellow bile,” first came to public notice in 1817. It stalked the world, as Coleridge said it did, like the devil himself.

One of the great scourges of the newly urbanised west in the nineteenth century, cholera was dramatic in its onset, agonising, utterly prostrating and often fatal. Where people lived cheek by jowl in unsanitary conditions it cut a swathe through a neighbourhood in days.

The progress of the illness in a cholera victim was a frightening spectacle: first, you suffered from diarrhoea which increased in intensity and became accompanied by painful retching and vomiting; thirst and dehydration; sever pain in the limbs, stomach, and abdominal muscles; a change skin hue to a sort of bluish-grey.

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A cholera victim

A typical cholera victim

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The disease was unlike anything then known. One doctor recalled: “Our other plagues were home-bred, and part of ourselves, as it were; we had a habit of looking at them with a fatal indifference, indeed, inasmuch as it led us to believe that they could be effectually subdued. But the cholera was something outlandish, unknown, monstrous; its tremendous ravages, so long foreseen and feared, so little to be explained, its insidious march over whole continents, its apparent defiance of all the known and conventional precautions against the spread of epidemic disease, invested it with a mystery and a terror which thoroughly took hold of the public mind, and seemed to recall the memory of the great epidemics of the middle ages.”

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A dead victim of cholera

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Since it was widely believed that disease was generated spontaneously from filth (pythogenesis) and transmitted by noxious invisible gas or miasma, there was much alarm over the discovery of an outbreak. In one epidemic, the one in the late 1840s, 14,789 people were killed in London alone. No one knew how to halt the disease’s progress nor stop the outbreaks once they started, because no one knew what caused it other than filth and squalid living conditions.

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King Cholera

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Suggested preventative measures included heavy ingestion of garlic, burning tar, and dousing the surroundings with chloride of lime. Other remedies touted at this time were passing steam over the patient or pouring boiling water on the patient’s stomach!!!!

During this whole period, the river Thames was known as the “Great Stink” as it had become so polluted with waste (organic matter of every kind from human faeces, dead animals, butchers’ waste and so on) as to be almost unbearable during summer months. People refused to use the river-steamers and would walk miles to avoid crossing one of the city bridges. Parliament could carry on its business only by hanging disinfectant-soaked cloths over the windows.

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Father_Thames_introducing_his_offspring_to_the_fair_city_of_London

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