9. The 1832 Cholera Pandemic
The bacteria known as Vibrio cholerae, once endemic only to the Ganges River region, went global in the 19th century. European expansion along with better methods of transportation helped spread the disease. In the mid-1820s, it took to the old trade routes and penetrated the Far East, Afghanistan, and Russia from India. Western Europe watched apprehensively as the contagion made its way into the continent. By April 1832, cholera was in Paris.
Americans hoped that the Atlantic would be a barrier as the plague ravaged Britain. But in June, the dread disease appeared in New York City, probably brought by immigrants arriving from Europe. The usual quarantines and clean-ups were ordered, but deaths increased during the summer months. However, unlike prior outbreaks where individuals were largely left to fend for themselves, the city government played a major role in fighting cholera. A special medical council was created, and response teams were on the alert. $25,000 was appropriated for special “cholera hospitals.”
Unfortunately, ignorance of the germ theory of disease hampered efforts. Many still believed that cholera was a visitation of God’s wrath (and thus afflicted only sinners) or that it was a “poor man’s disease” (and thus ravaged only the less fortunate such as the Irish and African-Americans, who crowded the decaying slums of Five Points). But when the reality on the ground proved these ideas wrong, consternation and panic ensued. Victims suffered horribly. Stomach cramps, nausea, fever, and diarrhea made their heads and limbs cold. Cardiac failure due to electrolytic imbalances caused death within a few hours after the first symptoms. Unlike yellow fever, cholera could be transmitted through soiled bedding, clothing, or infected water. The 80,000 people who fled New York (out of a population of 250,000) inadvertently spread the contagion to the surrounding areas. A witness remembered, “Our bustling city now wears a most gloomy and desolate aspect—one may take a walk up and down Broadway and scarce meet a soul.”
Conventional medical remedies included bleeding, ingestion of calomel (a mercury compound), magnesia, camphor, morphine and opium, and enemas of chicken tea. More bizarre treatments included tobacco smoke enemas and electric shock therapy. Other patients had to endure beeswax or oilcloth plugs stuffed into their rectum to halt the diarrhea.
By mid-July, there were about 100 deaths a day. But by Christmas, the disease had disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, and no one knows why even today. Perhaps it was the change in weather, the dispersal of the fleeing populace, or the quarantine measures. New York suffered 3,515 deaths. In today’s city of eight million, that would be the equivalent of 100,000 deaths. The social and medical impact of the pandemic was substantial. Public wells were replaced by the Croton Aqueduct, which brought in clean water from upstate. Improved sanitation, advancements in public health, and information sharing among doctors are among the things that we owe to the grim events of 1832.