Cholera in France in the 19th Century

The first cholera pandemic began in 1816 in India and eventually reached China before receding in 1826. In 1829, a second cholera pandemic occurred in Russia. This time it marched slowly towards Poland before hitting hard in London where it became known as “King Cholera.” Parisians thought they might avoid the cholera pandemic altogether, but, unfortunately, it took its first victim when it reached Paris on 26 March 1832.

Cholera in France in the 19thcentury

Duke of Orleans visiting the sick at the Hôtel Dieu Hospital during the cholera outbreak. Public domain.

Three days later, on 29 March, a mid-Lent masked ball was held at the Opera House in Paris. Some of the attendees at the ball decided to make light of the disease and appeared dressed as cholera. Later that same evening, around midnight, “suddenly … one dancer after the other fell to the ground with shrieks,”[1] and, shortly thereafter, 50 victims were carried to Paris’s Hôtel Dieu Hospital, where a few hours later, many of those victims “were buried in their masquerade clothes.”[2]

A French caricature of cholera, “Cholera Morbus.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Parisian hospitals then began receiving a steady stream of cholera victims and, on 3 April, an English newspaper reported on the Parisian toll:

“The cholera is increasing in a dreadful manner. Yesterday there were 200 near cases and 100 deaths. The official reports states, that since Sunday at one o’clock, up to yesterday, there had been 735 cases and 267 deaths.”[3]

A few weeks it was noted that deaths continued unabated:

“The cholera is committing dreadful ravages here – the street are quite deserted; you see alarm and despair in eveyr countenance; the dead carts are going about every hour – you often see two or three taken from the same house. The depredations are three times as great as are acknowledged by the public papers.” [4]

The next day on the 18th of April, a Dublin newspaper wrote, “The cholera … in Paris is a real pestilence. From noon on Sunday till the same period on Monday, the cases were 985, and the deaths 556.”[5] A third newspaper published an excerpt penned by a Parisian letter writer. The excerpt was published on 28 April but the letter was dated 15 April:

“The grave diggers of the cemetery of Montemarte cannot dig graves enough … The sextons have not time to arrange the bodies which are continually arriving in all sorts of vehicles, even in the military hospital wagons. The authorities have been obliged to employ the artillery horses from Vincennes, to relieve those employed in the hearses and hackney coaches, no longer able to convey the dead. The funerals all take place by night, in frightful rapidity of succession, and it is not uncommon to see layers of carcasses which the grave diggers have no time to cover, busy as they are in measuring the intervals between the full grown bodies in order to fill them up with children and women. In the lower parts of the town, near the Place de Greve…the hearses pass from door to door, escorted by the police, who can scarcely prevent the wretched people from fighting for the melancholy privilege of having a dead relation or friend carried to the grave in these more appropriate conveyances, to avoid their being huddled into a humbler vehicle.”[6]

Even before victims died, they looked like corpses and suffered from a wide range of symptoms. Symptoms included fevers, profuse diarrhea, cramps, chest pains, headaches, and vomiting. As the pandemic spread across Paris, the death count grew until the city seemed to exude a death-like odor. Ultimately, 20,000 Parisians from a population of 650,000 lost their lives within the first six months. Throughout France, a total of 100,000 people died from the dreaded disease.


A representation by Robert Seymour of the cholera epidemic of the 19th century depicts its spread in the form of impure air, known as miasma. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cholera soon spread beyond France. It arrived in 1832 in New York, Quebec, and Ontario before finally marching across North America and settling on the Pacific coast in 1834. As cholera spread from one country to the next, outbreaks of cholera began to recur in cities that had already been decimated. For instance, Paris suffered a new outbreak in 1849. This time when cholera hit, the Journal des Debats reported the following:

“The medical journals of Paris recommend particular attention to the slightest disorder of the bowels or derangement of the digestive organs; and, above all, the avoidance of excessive fatigue, by which the nervous system is exhausted and a predisposition to cholera at once excited. Strict attention to diet and regime, abstinence from ices, refrigerating drinks, unripe fruit, shell-fish, and crude vegetables — and the avoidance of impure air on the one hand, and cold draughts on the other, are indispensable measures of prevention, the neglect of which is literally suicidal.”[7]

  Fortunately, by mid-September 1849 there were reports that the number of cholera cases in France were decreasing. The Union Medicale reported:

“It is with great satisfaction that we inform our readers that the epidemic has declined in a most striking manner during the last three days; and this decline has coincided with a fall in the temperature of the atmosphere altogether unusual at this season of the year. … During the three days the choleraic mortality was 152 out of 154 deaths from various maladies, making together with the recorded number of deaths up to the 3rd of September, a grand total number of deaths from cholera mounting to 10,509.”[8]

Because of the ongoing cholera outbreaks, cures and remedies were suggested. Some of the remedies and cures suggested came from France and were typical of the ideas popularized in other countries. For instance, a Monsieur Fourcault suggested electro-magnetic insulation as a cure during the proceedings of the French Academy of Medicine in August of 1848. From the Academy of Sciences in Paris, a Monsieur Burguières thought “acid drinks” would affect a cure because the drinks “neutralized the alkaline condition of the mucous lining and the stomach and of its secretions.”[9] There were also many other ideas including inhalation of oxygen gas, using tobacco, throwing water into the bladder, using sesqui-chlorate of carbon, or wrapping a patient in sheets that had been dipped in boiling water and then placing the patient over the boilers of a steam engine.

Because no one worldwide seemed to be able to satisfactorily explain or cure cholera, the disease was thought to be all the more mysterious. Eventually, however, Englishman John Snow traced the source of a cholera outbreak in 1854 to Soho, London and a fecal-contaminated water source. Another epidemiologist, William Farr, eventually began to support John Snow and his idea that cholera might be spread through contaminated water. Yet, it would still take time for others to become convinced that contaminated water rather than impure air, known as miasma, might be linked to cholera.

Ultimately, attempts at understanding cholera fell upon the shoulders of a German physician and pioneering microbiologist named Robert Koch. He had investigated outbreaks of the disease in Alexandria in the late 1800s, and he understood two things about cholera: the importance of studying the individual microorganism and its relationship to the disease. In the end, Koch determined that the causative agent of cholera was Vibrio cholerae. Although other scientists initially resisted his explanations, Koch’s findings ultimately “closed the door to arguments about predisposing factors and conditions.”[10]

Robert Koch, Author's Collection

Robert Koch. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] Browning, Oscar, Modern France, 1814-1879, 1880, p. 31.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] “The Cholera in France,” in Staffordshire Advertiser, 07 April 1832, p. 4.
  • [4] “The Cholera,” in Preston Chronicle, 28 April 1832, p. 2.
  • [5] “The Cholera in France,” in Dublin Morning Register, 18 April 1832, p. 2.
  • [6] “The Cholera,” in Preston Chronicle, p. 2.
  • [7] “The Cholera. In France.,” in The Principality, 29 June 1849, p. 2.
  • [8] “The Cholera in France,” in Globe, 14 September 1849, p. 1.
  • [9] The Medical Times, 1849, p. 41.
  • [10] Kiple, Kenneth F., Plague, Pox & Pestilence, 1997, p. 147.

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