Edwin Chadwick and the Cholera Outbreak of 1848

Good intentions alone are not sufficient safe guard against making the wrong decisions.  Even someone intending only the best can, when choosing wrongly, bring calamity upon others.  Such was the case of Edwin Chadwick a noted social reformer living in 19th Century London. 

A controversial figure in his day, Chadwick studied law as a young man and associated a lot with the Philosophical Radicals of his day, a group of English radicals which included Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.   Despite his association, Edwin did not share the same concern for individual rights that underpinned the Utilitarianism of his contemporaries.  In his work as a Secretary for the Poor Law commission in the 1830’s he earned animosity for his lack of compassion regarding laws that meant that families in the workhouses were split up – husbands from wives and parents from children. 

It was this back ground that saw him switch roles to work in sanitation reform.  His major work entitled “The Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” was a landmark investigation into the almost complete lack of sanitation infrastructure in the country at the time.  Though it placed it’s biases purely on this dire lack and neglected to mention other matters such as diet that impacted on people health, it was nevertheless a major driver in changing attitudes at the time.  By placing a link squarely on poor sanitation provision and high rates of mortality amongst those affected it effectively placed the responsibility onto the Government to do something about the appalling sanitary environments of Britain’s cities.

Bad Smells and Other Indicators

As a result of his work he was appointed head of the newly founded Board of Health.  As it’s Commissioner he underook many acts to try to improve the general level of sanitation in London one of which involved flushing all the cesspits of the city into the river Thames.  This act caused a huge outbreak of sickness by contaminating the city’s water supply though, fortunately for Chadwick, he would not be recognized as having been responsible.

Back when Chadwick gave this order in 1849, the idea of illness as caused by microbes had not yet been realised.  Even though Britain was in the thrall of the Industrial revolution and enlightenment thought and reason where the guides of its thinkers, people still thought that sickness was, for the most part, spread by bad smells.  

In part this wasn’t completely unreasonable.  Rotting matter and excrement smells bad to the human nose and is a source of contamination and sickness due to being a breeding ground for germs. Typically many European cities at the time built wide avenues because by improving the smell of the city they believed they would improve the health.  It was also this thinking that lead Edwin Chadwick to order all the sewage be flushed into the river.  Yet even though this got rid of the smell, the germs thrived in the contaminated water of the Thames and found new hosts in the unwitting people drinking from the river.

What Really Happened

As most people nowadays know, illness is generally caused by microscopic organisms called microbes.  These bacteria, or germs as they are often called enter the body and can cause all sorts of illnesses unless bested by the body’s immune system or the intervention of outside medicine. 

Micro organisms had infact been known since the first microscopes were invented in the 17th century.  But for centuries they were regarded as scientific curiosities at best and the link between them and disease was unknown.  It was not until the pioneering work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in the 1860’s and 70’s respectively that what we now know as the germ theory of disease was proposed. 

Had Chadwick known about germs and how disease truly spread it is unthinkable that a man as committed to improving public health as he would have flushed the London sewers out into the Thames.  Even today, Edwin Chadwicks example stands as an important example in how important it is for people to understand how disease works.  Where water supplies become contaminated, illness is sure to follow.  




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