Tuberculosis was probably the primary killer disease in the 19th century, killing off approximately 20 million people, including Thoreau. It was a slow disease, though, taking years to kill people. So many years in fact, that quite a few people had children while they had the disease. And spread it to them. People actually considered it sort of a family disease.
Cholera, though—well that was just plain scary.
Cholera is quick. It can kill a healthy person from 2-3 hours to 2-3 days. It can cause some minor, not extremely unpleasant, vomiting, and horrible stomach cramps followed by deadly amounts of watery diarrhea. It kills through dehydration—sunken eyes, blue, sometime pruny skin, extreme thirst and extreme cold. Without treatment it can kill 50-90% of the people who get it. It’s spread through body fluids, most notably fecal matter, which considering what it does to the human body, is biologically genius. Today’s solution is intravenous solution or Oral Hydration Solution, which brings the kill-rate down to 1%. The Victorians, however, did not have anything close to resembling intravenous solutions, and at the beginning of the period sanitation was a problem.
It is important to note that the Victorians named two diseases Cholera, Epidemic Cholera, and Cholera Morbus. They are not related. Cholera Morbus, is also known as “the Summer Complaint” and was originally considered the illness that killed Dr. Chapman. It was implicated in some small degree in the deaths of Lizzie Borden’s parents. Cholera Morbus is now thought to have been food-born illnesses due to poor food storage—basically lack of refrigeration—and was not deadly, although the name implies it was.
Epidemic Cholera was a whole different ball game. It is thought to have probably been around for centuries, but was not part of “modern history” until it hit England in 1831 and New York in 1832 (it is now referred to as a Pandemic). It was so feared that at the first inkling that it had arrived in a town or city, it created a mass exodus of the people, most likely only causing it to spread further. More epidemics occurred in 1849 (where it gleefully joined the 49ers) and 1866. It killed 5000 people in New York City in 1849.
How to treat it? One common cure was Calomel, a laxative. This was not useful. According to my 1876 medical book, the best thing to administer was the doc’s Extract of Smartweed. I have no clue as to what that is. Dr. Pierce also suggested brandy thickened with crush sugar. I assume that was for the pain. He seems to think (and this sounds like it was widely believed ) that bringing about extreme heat—hot water bottles, blankets—and causing perspiration would help. Probably they were trying to sweat out the disease. I suspect this was not helpful either. Doesn’t excessive sweating lead to dehydration? It did last time I looked anyway.
By the end of the century the occurrences were petering out. John Snow had done his famous remove-the-dipper-from-the-town-well experiment (1854, London, Broad Street Well—took the dipper away. People stopped getting sick. The bacteria was in the well) thus proving that Cholera was 1) spread through bad water and 2) better sanitation would stop the epidemics. The sanitation notion did catch on. The first though, doesn’t appear to be certain by 1876 when my medical book was printed. Some people at the time where theorizing that it floated in the air—a miasma.
The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English, R.V.Pierce, M.D., 1876
Disease and History, Frederick F. Cartwright, Michael D. Biddiss