15 April 2008

New York: 1832 cholera epidemic

Family historians are always interested in the lives of their ancestors, and for those whose families lived in New York in the early 19th century, today's story in the New York Times will explain what life was like in the face of a cholera epidemic.

"How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis," focused on an 1832 cholera epidemic, in connection with a New York Historical Society exhibit.

Cholera appeared in South Asia in 1817, spread to other seaports and to London in 1831, reaching New York the next year.

On a Sunday in July 1832, a fearful and somber crowd of New Yorkers gathered in City Hall Park for more bad news. The epidemic of cholera, cause unknown and prognosis dire, had reached its peak.

People of means were escaping to the country. The New York Evening Post reported, “The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city, as we may suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii fled when the red lava showered down upon their houses.”

An assistant to the painter Asher B. Durand described the scene near the center of the outbreak. “There is no business doing here if I except that done by Cholera, Doctors, Undertakers, Coffinmakers, &c,” he wrote. “Our bustling city now wears a most gloomy & desolate aspect — one may take a walk up & down Broadway & scarce meet a soul.”

The epidemic left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The equivalent death toll in today’s city of eight million would exceed 100,000.) The dreadful time is recalled in art, maps, death tallies and other artifacts in an exhibition, “Plague in Gotham! Cholera in Nineteenth-Century New York,” at the New-York Historical Society. The show will run through June 28.

The story addresses life in crowded cities when sanitation and medical science were not prepared to deal with germs. The disease hit hardest, as these things usually do, in the poorest neighborhoods, such as Five Points. The story details the words of those who lived through the epidemic, through letters written (and included in the exhibition).

It took until 1854 for a British doctor, John Snow, to connect contaminated water with cholera, but not until 1883 was the disease-causing bacterium discovered.

As if predicting future shows like CSI, Snow plotted cholera cases on a Soho map, showing that most victims got their water from one public pump. The story mentions "Ghost Map," a reent book by Steven Johnson, which tells of the discovery that a baby's infected diapers were thrown into a cesspool near the pump.

Snow's research applied mapping in investigations - now computers analyze the data data - and medical historians credit him with the foundations of scientific epidemiology.

The epidemic forced cities to begin cleaning up but it was too late for the victims of the next bout in 1849. The population had doubled to 500,000 and cholera deaths numbered 5,071.

The story describes the growth of the city "as far north as 14th Street," and how residents sought clean air in the village of Greenwich, calling attention to small brick houses - still bearing their dates of construction today - built after 1832 in the Village.

In 1842, the Croton Aqueduct system brought in clean water and the 1866 founding of the Metropolitan Board of Health helped to regulate conditions.

Read more here .

No comments:

Post a Comment