Disease and the Marketplace

Roy Porter

  • Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1910 by Richard Evans
    Oxford, 676 pp, £55.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 19 822864 3

In mid-August 1892, Hamburg was basking in a heatwave. Workers splashed around in the River Elbe, which reached an almost unprecedented 70°F. Then people started to go down with intestinal pains, spasms, vomiting, diarrhoea. Most of them died. The death rate climbed. At the back of their minds the city’s medical officers and doctors nursed a dark fear that it was cholera: but surely that was impossible. Having spread from India and ravaged Europe in a series of terrifying epidemics from the 1830s onwards, cholera had mercifully receded, and by 1870 was but a bogey of the bad old days. How could proud and prosperous Hamburg, with its modern system of piped water and sanitation, become the hotbed of an Asiatic disease? A cholera epidemic was unthinkable: it would entail isolation, quarantine, a trade embargo, financial ruin. The doctors talked about isolated instances of vomiting, and uttered soothing noises: why create a panic? Panic would not only produce a run on the exchange but would actually render people more susceptible to the disease – whatever it was. But the number of the cases rose from tens to hundreds, and then turned to thousands. Within six weeks, ten thousand Hamburgers had died of what nobody could any longer deny was cholera. The City had pursued its policy of silence and inactivity up to the very last moment, afraid to admit the truth, petrified of having to spend money. If its Senate had required the boiling of drinking water at an early stage, as bacteriologists recommended, thousands would have been spared. But the City was proud of its water. And in any case, its medical authorities did not believe in the bacteriological doctrine that water-borne bacilli were to blame – they didn’t even believe such bacilli existed.

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