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Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Cholera in Oxford

Map showing the districts around Oxford with a key indicating which towns had recorded deaths from Cholera.District round Oxford, to illustrate Dr Acland's Memoir on cholera in 1854.Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire European cities had lived with inadequate sanitation. Because of increasing urban agglomerations of population after 1800, the problem of people living in close proximity to cesspools and heaps of stinking ordure had become particularly acute.

The reason for the repeated epidemic spread of cholera was not immediately apparent, as there were many plausible causes within both the urban and rural environments.

The all too visible physical ravages of the disease and its rapid progress in the infected organism, against which standard medical remedies were completely ineffective, made cholera particularly menacing.

It reminded Victorians that their country’s position at the centre of global commerce made them peculiarly vulnerable to infectious disease. Disease, like the advent of railways, could dissolve social order and social distinctions very efficiently, so they feared.

Although John Snow (1813-58) is now remembered as the principal investigator of the causation of cholera, and one who isolated its cause in the contamination of water supply, his methodology and conclusions were not universally accepted. Other medical scientists did not discover such a strong correlation. Sir Henry Wentworth Acland (1815-1900), who as a fellow of Christ Church and Aldrechian professor of clinical medicine had already helped to reform the medical curriculum of Oxford University, was one of them.

Although in this report Sir Henry did attribute the spread of the disease to meteorological conditions, interpersonal contagion (as indicated by the map shown here), inadequate ventilation, diet and poverty, he assigned an important role to inadequate drainage (he termed the absence of drainage from the Thames a ‘national disgrace’) and to the quantities of sewage that poured into the local rivers. He praised John Snow’s work, but was concerned with the origin of cholera, as well as its spread.

This publication, and Sir Henry's work for the royal sanitary commission, on which he served from 1869 to 1872, helped to ensure that Oxford never again suffered an outbreak of cholera. This improvement had happened before the scientist Robert Koch had established the bacteriological basis of the spread of cholera.

This copy bears Sir Henry’s inscription, as do several other volumes in the Foyle Special Collections Library.

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