The average American was susceptible to many infectious diseases during the 1800’s. Because the spread of disease and pathology itself were not adequately understood until the late 1800’s(major epidemics continued to occur into the 1900’s, however), and the practice of medicine was relatively primitive, the average life expectancy was very low. Many epidemics occurred in the new and thriving industrial centers of America, where rapid urbanization had not provided for adequate sanitation or living conditions for the burgeoning middle class. Major epidemics were caused by such diseases as yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis (TB), influenza, measles, scarlet fever, malaria, and diphtheria.
The average American city during the 19th century was a breeding ground for the frequent epidemics that occurred, killing thousands. Port cities were particularly susceptible to epidemics of infectious disease. New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were places where ships carrying foreign goods-and disease- were unloaded; they were also where potentially infected immigrants disembarked.
Toward the end of the 19th century, as people searched for a way to control infectious diseases, the germ theory of disease was introduced. It became clear that impure water, crowding, poor housing, spoiled food, and other environmental conditions were contributing to high rates of disease in cities. In New York City, one out of every 36 people died in 1863, as compared to one out of 44 in Boston and Philadelphia. 190 infants out of every 1,000 didn’t live to their first birthday, while nearly one-quarter of those reaching the age of 20 would not live to see thirty from 1840-1870.
Which diseases affected 19th century populations the most? Cholera, yellow fever, and influenza, malaria, TB, and smallpox had the most major epidemics in the United States during the 1800’s. Influenza, a common respiratory ailment transferred by aerosol droplets, occurred (continues to occur) in world-wide epidemics, usually spaced around forty-years apart. One of the world’s largest influenza epidemics occurred from 1857-1859;the most famous influenza epidemic occurred in 1918, however, and killed over 21 million people world-wide. The next international influenza epidemic is predicted next year.
Cholera, a severe diarrheal disease, kills over half of the people who contract it. It thrived in the newly industrialized and poorly sanitized urban cities of the 19th century. Advances in the control of this disease weren’t reached until 1883, when Robert Koch, a German physician, discovered the causative agent of Cholera, the bacterium Vibrio Cholerae. Diseases such as cholera, spread through contamination (usually fecal matter) of food and water, could be halted simply by stopping the means of contamination, but this information wasn’t used widely until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. An English doctor and pioneer in the field of epidemiology traced the spread of cholera by death certificates in one area of London to the infamous Broad Street water pump, thereby pointing to sewage-contaminated water as a means of contracting cholera
Yellow Fever, also known as jungle yellow fever, was caused by a noncontagious infectious diseases spread primarily by mosquitoes and characterized by high fever and jaundice. Yellow fever was originally from Africa and was carried to North America with the slave trade. In 1881, Cuban physician Carlos Finlay hypothesized that the transmission of yellow fever was linked to mosquitoes. Yellow fever was eventually controlled by the draining of mosquito breeding grounds and the quarantining of ships from infected areas.
Smallpox, a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease (characterized by pustules that spread over an infected person’s entire body) that decimated the native populations in North and South America, was carried across the world by European explorers, and later, colonists. It has infected humans for thousands of years and is spread by aerosol droplets.
Malaria, a debilitating infectious disease characterized by periodic bouts of intense fever, caused by parasites, and spread by mosquitoes, was once widespread in North America and other temperate regions, but the last outbreak occurred in the late 19th century. It is an ancient disease, described by Hippocrates during the 400s B.C., but its cause was not learned until the late 1800’s, when the French surgeon Charles Alphonse Laveran identified the malaria parasite in the blood of a patient. Its transmission by mosquitoes was demonstrated in 1899 by Sir Ronald Ross.
Tuberculosis (TB), a chronic or acute bacterial infection that primarily attacks the lungs, but may also affect the kidneys, bones, lymph nodes, and brain kills over half of those infected with it. It is can develop in two stages, primary and secondary. It has existed since 2000 B.C. and was found in the lung tissue of Egyptian mummies. It reappeared in epidemic form over Europe and the United States during the 19th century.
An American physician, Edward Trudeau, was infected at least twice with tuberculosis. The second time, when he thought he was dying, he retired to Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York to spend his final days. When he found his symptoms eventually cured, he attributed his recovery to the fresh air of the mountains. In 1885 he built the first American sanatorium; the model for the many sanatoriums that became the mainstay for TB treatment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
During the 19th century, medicine was hardly the advanced profession it is today. Many medieval treatments, treatments that yielded little or no results, and often killed the patient with a different affliction from the original ailment, were still in use. The most popular or such treatments was the practice of bloodletting, first used by the Greeks in the fourth century
B.C. Blood was withdrawn from the general circulation by deep cuts (usually to the feet), and from local tissues by leeches.
In conclusion, the 19th century gave rise to devastating epidemics of infectious disease in America, and the world, but it also gave rise to a pathological enlightenment. With the germ theory, and discoveries put forth by scientists such as Robert Koch, Carlos Finlay, Charles Alphonse Laveran, and Edward Trudeau the endemic and epidemic diseases of the world could now be better understood and prevented.