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Cholera: Shaping Social Attitudes and Science in Government Essay


During much of the 1800’s and the 1900’s Cholera was a disease which had many similar characteristics of the plague that affected Western civilization. Cholera had a profound affect on not only social and cultural attitudes, but religious ideas, medical thought, and the role of science in the government. Many historians, scientists, and doctors all have different views on how Cholera was spread, and where this execrable disease came from. How Cholera shaped social attitudes at that time, can still be seen in how social attitudes are shaped in modern day society. Cholera also shaped science in the government, and especially emphasized on sanitation, which can also be seen in modern day society. Without the epidemic of Cholera, how would life be different today? Would there be segregation of social classes? Would sanitation be important? Most likely, yes they would, but Cholera is an interesting case to study when looking at these questions.

Social Thought During the Cholera Years

Throughout the many years Cholera was prominent in many areas, social turmoil was at an all time high. Different social groups as well as social classes were experiencing feelings of distrust, anger, and fear. “…almost before cholera even appeared-Europeans and Americans had associated cholera with social class and economic background.”[1] Poor social classes were frightened that their traditional ways of life would be violated because there were many arguments made that Cholera was associated with the poor. For example, Rene Villerme believed that poverty was the cause of disease.[2] This led the poor social class to not be able to trust anyone. The poor especially did not have any trust in doctors. Their fear was that doctors were the agents of evoking something that could potentially hurt them.

Because of their distrust and fear of doctors, the poor social class despised isolation hospitals. A quote that came from poor people in Manchester was “To the hospital, pull it to the ground.”[3] This quote clearly shows the resentment that the poor social class had towards hospitals. Threats, like the quote above, made doctors and hospitals feel that they were under attack. Next, the middle class feared Cholera as a social stability threat. They were fearful of the economy being disrupted as well as an increase of anger being provoked. Their fear was accurate considering that riots did break out in some areas. For example, in Russia, riots began to break out when there were many police enforcing isolation. [4] It is quite apparent that during the 1800’s and 1900’s when Cholera outbreaks were abundant, social attitudes were shaped in an overall negative way.

Correlation of Social Thought Shaping Modern Society

In modern society, most humans have encounters with many, many different people and social classes. Do you trust every person you have an encounter with? Of course not, especially if you have ever been hurt by someone you thought you could trust. That is how the poor social class felt when they were hurt by doctors. Today, trust is one of the fundamental parts to having a relationship with someone. With trust being a big issue to the poor social class during the Cholera outbreaks, it has had a part in the shaping of modern society issues of trust. When people today see that people during the 1800’s and 1900’s could not trust doctors, who are supposed to be there to help and save lives, then that gives the modern society the question of who can they trust? Today, you see a lot of trust issues between boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, co-workers, politics, etc.

There is a clear correlation of how trust in past events have shaped modern society, and possibly even made it worse. Next, anger is an issue in modern society, as well. Anger can turn into violence very easily. This was seen in the past with the riots that broke out during the years Cholera was prominent in society. Today, violence is a big issue as a whole in many different areas. Like the middle class feared anger during the 1800’s and 1900’s, it correlates with modern day people fearing anger and acts of violence. Cholera is just one of many components that has shaped social attitudes in modern day society. Although circumstances during the 1800’s and 1900’s are very different from modern society, it is clear that events from the past do have an affect in shaping social aspects of things in the future.

Environmental Conditions During the Cholera Years

Overall, during the years that Cholera was most prominent, the environment was revolting. The main reason for the environment being so bad was because of the lack of modern technology for sewage systems. Waste seemed to be spread everywhere; in soil, rivers, streets, etc. Water flushed toilets were not very prominent during this time. “Most human wastes found their way either into leaky cesspools or directly into street drains.” [5] The cesspools were not cleaned often enough to keep the area sanitary, which was one of the direct causes for the environment being so awful. Not only would human waste be spread throughout the environment, but trash and animal bodies, too. All of this horrible pollution would be the air that people during that time would breathe in, and it would also find its way into the water that they drank. Numerous cities were polluted with all of these foul things, and it was becoming a big problem. Along with the bad pollution, some cities were also very overcrowded which would make matters much worse.

Science in the Government During the Cholera Years

During the1800’s and 1900’s, scientific research mainly focused on the emphasis of the cause and communication of Cholera, as well as what was the best way to treat it and stop the spreading of it. There was a central argument of miasma versus contagion, but it was clear that the majority associated Cholera as a miasmatic disease. For example, Erwin Ackerknech, believed pollution to be the foremost cause of disease for obvious reasons, and he was not the only one to believe that. John Snow focused on Cholera as being spread through water. Mainly, polluted water that contained fecal material.[6] Snow did numerous studies on Cholera being spread through water. In “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera”, Snow presents various different studies that examine the correlation between where people were receiving their water from and how many were diagnosed with Cholera depending on where their water was from. Snow presented his data in tables to show that more deaths were prominent in areas with bad water supply.

“This table shows that in the greater part of Southwark, which was supplied with worse water than any other part of the metropolis, the mortality from cholera was also much higher than anywhere else.” [7] This quote is just one of many examples that prove Snow’s theory that water was one of the main sources for the spread of Cholera. Another study that Snow conducted was on two districts in London that were very alike in social and economic compositions, but had different water supplies. His conclusion found that one of the districts suffered much more than the other with Cholera due to the water.[8] So, where does science in the government come into play?

There was clearly a serious environmental problem, and who was going to make the initiative to think of something to help and propose it to the government for help? Edwin Chadwick was the answer. Chadwick was a known for how he improved public health through sanitization. Chadwick’s inquiry called The Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, “was the greatest classic of the sanitation movement, and one that outsold well-known novels.” [9] Chadwick’s main focus was in the sewer and water systems. He wanted a system where fresh water only was pumped to people, and that waste, sewage, trash, etc. was disposed of the correct way without seeping public areas. Because of Chadwick’s Report, A Public Health Act was approved by the British Parliament.

“The 1848 Act empowered local boards of health to enforce drainage, build sewers, compel the servicing of cesspools, pave and clean streets, deal with nuisances, inspect lodging houses and burial grounds, control the water supply, and raise local taxes to pay for it all.”[10] The above quote tells how the environment was soon being changed for the better now that Chadwick was able to make an impact on the government to do something. Cholera shaped the role of science in the government by emphasizing the importance of sanitation to the government, in which in return the government would act accordingly with the people’s best interest in mind.

Shaping the Importance of Sanitization in Modern Society

In modern society, sanitization is a major component of life. Everywhere you go, you are subject to germs, and more and more people are taking measures of sanitization to keep themselves healthy. One example of these measures is hand sanitizer. In modern society you find this everywhere; libraries, schools, hospitals, stores, etc. If it was not for the Cholera outbreak and Chadwick’s extensive emphasis of the importance of sanitation, how would modern society be today? Dirty? There is no knowing, but sanitation in the 1800’s and 1900’s definitely helped shape society today, for the better. Another example of the importance of sanitation today can be seen in restaurants. It does not matter what restaurant you go to, every one of them has a letter on the outside indicating the cleanliness of the establishment.

Also, any doctor or dentist appointment that you go to, you will always notice that the doctor makes a point to was his/her hands before and after seeing a patient. Any tools used by the doctor or dentist are either brand new or well sanitized before they come in contact with their patients. There are numerous measures of sanitation in modern society today, whether government controlled, or peoples person preferences of how they like to stay sanitary. Health is a major component to modern society, and Chadwick’s Report during the Cholera outbreak helped illuminate the importance of sanitation to where it is still being used and made better in modern society.


In conclusion, it is apparent that Cholera had an effect on many different things in many different ways. Some are positive ways: development of sanitation, and some are negative ways: social attitudes of distrust and violence. These negative and positive effects of Cholera can still be seen in modern day society which shows that Cholera helped to shape social attitudes as well as the role of science in government. Where would modern day society be today if the outbreaks of Cholera never came about during the 1800’s and 1900’s? Social attitudes could easily be very different and sanitation may not be a serious factor in most peoples lives. Events of the past are one of the main responsibilities of how society is shaped today. Cholera will be forever remembered and known for its different effects on how society is shaped today.

[1]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 140. [2]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 140. [3]J.N. Hayes,
The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 140. [4]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 139. [5]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 143. [6]Professor Williams. “Lecture.” September 26, 2012.

[7]John Snow, “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera.” (London: Churchill, 1855). 35. [8]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 147. [9]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 145. [10]J.N. Hayes, The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998 and 2009), 146.

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