book background

"On the mode of propagation of cholera"

View this document as a PDF

Medical Times
(29 November 1851): 559-62
Part 1. Read at the London Epidemiological Society on 5 May 1851.

By John Snow, M.D.

Although the more severe cases of common English cholera cannot always be distinguished from the malady called Asiatic cholera, yet hardly any one doubts the distinct nature of these diseases, or that the latter was a stranger to Europe prior to the year 1830. A careful consideration of Asiatic cholera shows clearly enough that it is propagated by human intercourse. It has proceeded in various directions along the great channels of intercommunication, never progressing faster than people travel, and generally much more slowly. In extending to an island or a fresh continent, it always makes its first appearance at a seaport, and it never attacks the crew of a ship from a healthy port that is approaching an infected country, till their actual arrival. Many instances have occurred in which quarantine or cordons sanitaires have protected places from the cholera, either altogether, or for a time; and the most conclusive part of the evidence, is the number of instances in which the malady has been introduced into healthy localities by persons who have been taken ill after their arrival from places where cholera prevailed. Dr. Bryson related several instances of this kind in the paper that he read before this Society, and a number more might be now related did the time permit: indeed, the cases in which the progress of cholera can be traced in this manner are the rule rather than the exception, and are, at all events far too numerous to be set down as mere coincidences. It may be remarked, also, that coincidences of this sort are not found to obtain in rheumatism, ague, or indeed in any but epidemic diseases, the whole of which I look upon as communicable from one patient to another, this communication being probably the real feature of distinction between epidemic and other diseases.

Another circumstance strongly confirmatory of the communication of cholera, is the direct relation which exists between the number of the population and the duration of the disease in different towns and villages. The accompanying figures were compiled by me from Dr. W. Merriman's valuable table of cholera in England in 1832* (*Transactions of Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, 1844): --


It will be seen, that 52 places are enumerated in which the cholera continued less than 50 days, and that the average population of these places was 6,624; that there are 43 places specified in which the disease lasted 50 days, but less than 100, the average population of these places being nearly twice as great as that of the former; while in the remaining 34 towns, in which the cholera continued for 100 days and upwards, the average population was very much greater still, being 38,000 or 78,000, according as London is omitted from or included in the list. I believe that the same rule has obtained during the recent epidemic, but I have no precise information on the point. It is hardly necessary to remark, that if the cholera cases were not connected one with another, there would be no reason why the few cases which happen in a village should not be scattered over as long a period as the thousands which occur in a great metropolis.

I shall perhaps be thought singular in asserting, that there is no evidence opposed to the propagation of cholera by its communication from individual to individual, or in favour of any other origin of the disease. The chief facts which are believed to be opposed to the extension of cholera by communication are the following: That many persons are placed in close relation with the sick, nurse them, and wait upon them, and sometimes even sleep in the same bed, without becoming infected with the malady; that quarantine and cordons sanitaires often fail to arrest its progress; and that persons are often attacked with it who have had no intercourse with the sick or their friends.

These facts are thought to be opposed to the communication of cholera, because it is assumed, that this disease, to be communicated, must extend itself, as the eruptive fevers are believed to do, by means of some emanation given off from the patient into the air; or, if not in that way, then by contact with the patient, or articles of clothing, etc., which have been near him. But, without assuming such hypotheses, the circumstances above mentioned would not in any way oppose the evidence of the communication of cholera. Nearly every one of these facts is equally true of syphilis as of cholera. Persons nurse and wait on syphilitic patients and might even sleep in the same bed with them without contracting the malady; and it is very doubtful, whether quarantine regulations, however strict, would prevent its communication, as they would be evaded. These circumstances are not considered to interfere with the proofs of the contagiousness of syphilis, only because we happen to know the way in which it is communicated and when we shall know equally well the way in which cholera is communicated, I do not doubt that we shall find them equally in applicable to that disease.

A consideration of the pathology of cholera is capable of indicating to us the manner in which the disease is communicated. If it were ushered in by fever or any other general constitutional disorder, then we should be furnished with no clue to the way in which the morbid poison enters the system; but if it commences by a local affection of any particular part, and the system at large only suffers in consequence of the local affection, then it is pretty evident, that the material cause of the disease must have been applied to the part first affected. From all that I have been able to learn of cholera, either by my own observation or that of others, it has appeared, that the illness always commences with the affection of the alimentary canal; and in all the cases that I have seen, the loss of fluid from the stomach and bowels has been sufficient to account for the collapse, when the previous condition of the patient was taken into account, together with the suddenness of the loss, and the circumstance that the process of absorption appears to be suspended. Certain fatal cases of cholera without evacuations have occurred; but, whenever there has been an examination, of the body in such cases, the excretions peculiar to cholera have been found in the bowels. It appears, indeed, that the cholera poison never enters the circulation, and that the blood does not become contaminated in this disease, except when congestion of the kidneys follows as a secondary affection. The irritation of the bowels accounts for the cramps; and the loss of the water and saline constituents of the blood is the cause of the collapse and the symptoms of [559/560] asphyxia. The careful analyses of the blood by Dr. Garrod have confirmed the fact, that its solid constituents are relatively much increased by the loss of water. On this account, it becomes so thick that it circulates with difficulty through the capillaries of the lungs, while the diminished quantity of salts renders it still further unfitted to undergo the usual changes in respiration. The injection of a weak saline solution into the veins of cholera patients in the state of collapse has often been attended with the most surprising effects of a temporary nature, at once restoring the patent, who the minute before was nearly dead, to a state of apparent health and strength. It was justly remarked by Dr. Budd, in a clinical lecture delivered at King's College Hospital, that, if the patient's symptoms depended on a poison circulating in the blood, they could not be removed by the injection of a simple saline solution. The saline solution merely restores the water which has become deficient, and supplies salts analogous to those which have been lost.

If the poison which communicates cholera from person to person does not enter the blood, it is evident that it must multiply itself on the surface of the alimentary canal, and must be contained in the evacuations from the stomach and bowels. The proofs that the cholera poison is contained in these discharges and that the disease is communicated by their being accidentally swallowed, are of a general as well as a particular kind.

It has been constantly observed, that the want of personal cleanliness aided very much the propagation of cholera, although no explanation could be given of the circumstance; it is very evident, however, that without habits of strict cleanliness persons waiting on the sick must get their hands soiled with the cholera discharges, and must unknowingly contaminate the provisions they handle, in eating their own food or preparing that of others. The sudden discharge of the evacuations, which often soil the clothing or bed linen, and the little colour or odour they possess, very much increase the liability to their being swallowed in this way, and under some circumstances render it almost certain. For instance, when a large family, or more than one family are crowded into a single room, and when the same persons have to attend to the patient, and also to prepare and serve the meals for the rest of the inmates, without the materials for washing the hands, even if the inclination should exist, it is next to impossible that the provisions should be eaten without being contaminated with the peculiar discharges of the patient; and these are the circumstances under which the disease is found most frequently to spread among the inmates of a room. Mr. Baker, of Staines, who attended 260 cases of cholera and diarrhea in the late epidemic, chiefly among the poor, informed me in a letter, with which he favoured me in December, 1849, that "where the patients passed their stools involuntarily the disease evidently spread." Deficiency of light is a great obstacle to cleanliness, as it prevents dirt from being seen, and it must aid very much the contamination of the food with the cholera evacuations.

The assistance which crowding lends to the spread of cholera could be explained on the hypothesis of effluvia or miasmata given off from the patient into the surrounding air; but the extension of the disease from want of cleanliness, deficiency of water, and deficiency of light, cannot be explained on such a hypothesis. The non-communication of cholera in cleanly families, where the hand-basin and the towel are in constant use and where the apartments for cooking and eating are distinct from the sick-room; and also its non-communication, as a general rule, to medical men and other visitors of the sick belonging to the educated classes of society, are fully explained on the doctrine here laid down, although these circumstances are inexplicable on the supposition of its spread by means of effluvia. Its fearful extension in certain pauper asylums for children and lunatics is also clearly accounted for, together with its non-liability to spread in more commodious and better regulated establishments.

The great fatality of cholera among all the mining populations of this kingdom has been very remarkable in both the epidemics of that disease. The chief reasons of this are as follow:--The miners generally remain eight hours in the pits, and take food with them, which they eat whilst at work. There are neither privies, hand-basins, nor towels in the mines; and when a case of cholera occurs in a pit, the hands of the workmen, in the dark subterranean passages, can hardly fail to become soiled with the discharges. Should we have a return of the cholera, I believe that many thousands of lives might be saved by dividing the time of labour into two periods of four hours, dissuading the workmen from taking food into the mines and enjoining them to wash their hands on going home before taking any food. There are other causes to be afterwards mentioned which contribute to the extension of cholera in several of the mining districts, viz., the contamination of the wells and brooks with the evacuations of the people.

It can hardly be anticipated, from the nature of the subject, that we should be able to obtain distinct evidence of the cholera evacuations having been taken with the food. The following cases, perhaps, afford as decisive proof of this variety of communication of cholera as can be expected. In the beginning of last year, a letter appeared in the Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, from Mr. John C. Bloxam, in the Isle of Wight, being an answer to the inquiry on cholera by Mr. Hunt. Among other interesting information, Mr. Bloxam stated, that the only cases of cholera that occurred in the village of Carisbrook, happened in persons who ate of some stale cow-heels, which had been the property of a man who died in Newport, after a short and violent attack of cholera. Mr. Bloxam kindly made additional personal inquiries into the case, in consequence of questions I put to him, and the following is a summary of the information contained in his letter:-–

The man from whose house the cow-heels were sent for sale died on Monday, the 20th of August. It was the custom in the house to boil these articles on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and the cow-heels under consideration were taken to Carisbrook, which is a mile from Newport ready boiled, on Tuesday, the 21st. Eleven persons in all partook of this food, seven of whom ate it without any additional cooking. Six of these were taken ill within twenty-four hours after eating it, five of whom died, and one recovered. The seventh individual, a child, who ate but a small quantity of the cow-heels, was unaffected by it. Four persons partook of the food after additional cooking. In one case the cow-heels were fried, and the person who ate them was taken ill of cholera within twenty-four ours afterwards, and died. Some of the food was made into broth, of which three persons partook while it was warm; two of then remained well, but the third person partook again of the broth next day, when cold, and, within twenty-fours [twenty-four hours] after this latter meal, she was taken ill with cholera, of which she died. It may be proper to mention, although it is no unusual circumstance for animal food to be eaten in hot weather when not quite fresh, that some of the persons perceived the cow-heels to be not so fresh as they ought to have been at the time they were eaten, and part of them had to be thrown away a day or two afterwards, in consequence of being quite putrid.

A man living in West-street, Soho, who kept a horse and cart, was employed, in the beginning of September, 1849, to remove some furniture from a house in Lambeth. The furniture had been the property of a woman who died of cholera, and had just been buried. The bedding and night-chair were left just as they were when the patient died. This man was taken with cholera during the night, within thirty-six hours after removing the furniture and other effects and he died of the attack. I saw him with Mr. Marshall, of Greek-street, and we both remarked that his hands were very dirty, and had apparently not been washed for some days.

If the views here explained be correct it is evident that the cholera poison may often be conveyed to a distance with provisions, as in the instance of the cow-heels above-mentioned, when there is no evidence of personal intercourse. There is also another very important medium for transmitting the cholera poison from the sick to the healthy without immediate intercourse. It is the water which people drink and in this case the proofs are often of a more direct and decisive nature.

The deficiency of water had often been spoken of, but the quality of the water had hardly ever been publicly mentioned as contributing to the increase of cholera till August 1849, when Dr. Lloyd related to the South London Medical Society some occurrences that had taken place in Rotherhithe, and a pamphlet of mine, containing other instances, and some reasoning on the subject, appeared at the same time. Mr. John Grant, Surveyor to the Commissioners of Sewers for Surrey and Kent, also drew up a report in the same month, respecting the contamination of a well, in a [560/561] court in Thomas-street, Horsleydown; and attention having been strongly directed to the matter, several other instances of the connexion between violent outbreaks of cholera and the contamination of the drinking water were related.

One of the most fatal instances of communication of cholera by means of water, is that which occurred at Albion-terrace, Wandsworth-road--a row of seventeen houses, most of them detached a few feet from each other, and constituting the genteel suburban dwellings of a number of professional and tradespeople. All the houses were supplied with water on a uniform plan, from a spring in the neighbourhood, the water being conducted into a tank placed behind each house, from which it was pumped into the kitchen when required. The tanks were all connected together by pipes, and the surplus water flowed away into a drain, which received the contents of the house drains and cesspools. The various drains and pipes were so constructed that the water was liable to become tainted, and it had been occasionally complained of previously; but during a storm of rain on July 26th, the chief drain burst, and its contents became mixed with the water in the tanks. I had an opportunity of finding afterwards in the water, the stones and husks of currants and grapes, and various other substances which had gone through the alimentary canal. The more gross materials, however, settled to the bottom of the tanks, and the water pumped up was not so bad as to excite suspicion or attract much attention except in two or three of the houses.

"The first case of cholera occurred at No. 13, on July 28, (two days after the bursting of the drain,) in a lady who had had premonitory symptoms for three or four days. It was fatal in fourteen hours. There was an accumulation of rubbish in the cellar of this house, which was said to be offensive by the person who removed it; but the proprietor of the house denied this. A lady at No. 8 was attacked with choleraic diarrhœa on July 30; she recovered. On August 1, a lady, aged 81, at No. 6, who had had some diarrhœa eight or ten days before, which had yielded to her own treatment, was attacked with cholera ; she died on the 4th, with congestion of the brain. Diarrhœa commenced on August 1, in a lady, aged 60, at No. 3; collapse took place on the 5,th, and death on the 6th. On August 3 there were three or four cases in different parts of the row of houses, and two of them terminated fatally on the same day. The attacks were numerous during the following three or four days, and after that time they diminished in number. More than half the inhabitants of the part of the terrace in which the cholera prevailed were attacked with it, and upwards of half the cases were fatal. The deaths occurred as follow; but as some of the patients lingered a few days, and died in the consecutive fever, the deaths were less closely grouped than the seizures. There was 1 death on July 28, 2 on August 3, 4 on the 4th, 2 on the 6th, 2 on the 7th, 4 on the 8th, 3 on the 9th, 1 on the 11th, and 1 on the 13th. These make 20 fatal cases; and there were 4 or 5 deaths besides amongst those who were attacked after flying from the place." The fatal cases were distributed over ten of the seventeen houses, and cases occurred also in the other seven houses, with the exception of one or two that were empty, or nearly so. In short, the cholera extended to all the houses supplied by the contaminated water, and to no others; for there were hardly any cases in the immediate neighbourhood at the time.

There are no data for showing how the disease was communicated to the first patient, at No. 13, on July 28; but it was two or three days afterwards, when the evacuations from this patient must have entered the drains having a communication with the water supplied to all the houses, that other persons were attacked, and in two days more the disease prevailed to an alarming extent.

A similar instance of communication of cholera through the water occurred nearly at the same time "in Thomas-street, Horsleydown, where there are two courts close together, consisting of a number of small houses or cottages inhabited by poor people. The houses occupy one side of each court or alley, the south side of Trusscott's-court, and the north side of the other, which is called Surrey-buildings, being placed back to back, with an intervening space, divided into small back areas, in which are situated the privies of both the courts, communicating with the same drain; and there is an open sewer which passes the further end of both the courts. Now, in Surrey-buildings, the cholera committed fearful devastation, whilst in the adjoining court there was but one fatal case, and another that ended in recovery. In the former court the slops of dirty water, poured down by the inhabitants into a channel in front of the houses, got into the well from which they obtained their water, this being the only difference that Mr. Grant, the Assistant-Surveyor for the Commissioners of Sewers, could find between the circumstances of the two courts, as he stated in his report to the Commissioners. The well in question was supplied from the pipes of the South London Water Works, and was covered in on a level with the adjoining ground; and the inhabitants obtained the water by a pump placed over the well. The channel mentioned above commenced close by the pump. Owing to something being out of order, the water for some time past occasionally burst out at the top of the well, and overflowed into the gutter or channel, afterwards flowing back again mixed with the impurities; and crevices were left in the ground or pavement, allowing part of the contents of the gutter to flow at all times into the well, and when it was afterwards emptied, a large quantity of black and highly offensive deposit was found it.

"The first case of cholera in this court occurred on July 20th, in a little girl, who had been labouring under diarrhœa for four days. This case ended favourably. On the 21st July, the next day, an elderly female was attacked with the disease, and was in a state of collapse at ten o'clock the same night. Mr. Vinen, of Tooley-street, who attended these cases, states that the evacuations were passed into the beds, and that the water in which the foul linen would be washed would inevitably he emptied into the channel mentioned above. Mr. Russell, of Thornton-street, Horsleydown, who attended many of the subsequent cases in the court, and who, along with another medical gentleman, was the first to call the attention of the authorities to the state of the well, says that such water was invariably emptied there, and the people admit the circumstance. About a week after the above two cases commenced, a number of patients were taken ill nearly together: four on Saturday, July 28th, seven or eight on the 29th, and several on the following day. Eleven of the cases were fatal. The deaths occurred in seven out of the fourteen small houses in the court.

"The two first cases on the 20th and 21st may be considered to represent about the average amount of cases for the neighbourhood, there having been just that number in the adjoining court about the same time. But, in a few days, when the dejections of these patients must have become mixed with the water the people drank, a number of additional cases commenced nearly together."* (*The passages in the above account, included within inverted commas [quotation marks], are quoted from a pamphlet, by the Author, "On the Communication of Cholera.")

The following instances were made known by Dr. Lloyd:--In Silver-street, Rotherhithe, there were 80 cases and 38 deaths in the course of a fortnight, early in July, 1849, at a time when there was very little cholera in any other part of Rotherhithe. The contents of all the privies in this street ran into a drain which had once had a communication with the Thames; and the people got their supply of water from a well situated very near the end of the drain, with the contents of which the water got contaminated. Dr. Lloyd informed me that the fetid water from the drain could be seen dribbling through the side of the well, above the surface of the water. Among other sanitary measures recommended by Dr. Lloyd, was the filling up of the well; and the cholera ceased in Silver-street as soon as the people gave over using the water. Another instance alluded to by Dr. Lloyd was Charlotte-place, in Rotherhithe, consisting of seven houses, the inhabitants of which, excepting those of one house, obtained their water from a ditch communicating with the Thames, and receiving the contents of the privies of all the seven houses. In these houses there were 25 cases of cholera, and 14 deaths; one of the houses had a pump railed off to which the inhabitants of the other houses had no access and there was but one case in that house.† (†See Med. Gaz., 1849, vol. II., p. 429.)

The following instance, as well as some others of a similar kind, is related in the Report on Cholera by the General Board of Health:-–

"In Manchester, a sudden and violent outbreak of cholera occurred in Hope-street, Salford. The inhabitants used water from a particular pump-well. This well had been repaired, and a sewer which passes within nine inches of the [561/562] edge of it became accidentally stopped up, and leaked into the well. The inhabitants. of 30 houses used the water from this well; among them there occurred 19 cases of diarrhœa, 26 cases of cholera, and 25 deaths. The inhabitants of 60 houses in the same immediate neighbourhood used other water; among these there occurred 11 cases of diarrrhœa, but not a single case of cholera, nor one death. It is remarkable, that, in this instance, out of the 26 persons attacked with cholera, the whole perished except one."-–P. 62.

Dr. Thomas King Chambers informed me, that at Ilford, in Essex, in the summer of 1849, the cholera prevailed very severely in a row of houses a little way from the main part of the town. It had visited every house in the row but one. The refuse which overflowed from the privies and a pigsty could be seen running into the well over the surface of the ground, and the water was very fetid; yet it was used by the people in all the houses except that which had escaped cholera. That house was inhabited by a woman who took linen to wash, and she, finding that the water gave the linen an offensive smell, paid a person to fetch water for her from the pump in the town, and this water she used for culinary purposes, as well as for washing.

The time does not permit of my relating any more of the numerous instances in which severe outbreaks of cholera have been connected with adulteration of the water with the contents of drains and cesspools; and this is the less to be regretted, as the influence of this kind of water over the increase of cholera is now generally admitted.

In the seventh notification of the General Board of Health, on September 18, 1849, soon after attention had been first prominently drawn to this matter, the following passage occurs:-–"The ascertained fact, that the use of vitiated water acts as a poison on the stomach and bowels, producing sickness, diarrhœa, and other symptoms resembling those of cholera, has recently received melancholy confirmation in numerous instances."

Now, in these instances, the disease induced is admitted to have been actual cholera in the same notification, and in the subsequent report of the Board, and there is no evidence to show that vitiated water generally acts as a poison; on the contrary, in many of the instances in which these outbreaks of cholera occurred, the people had been drinking the same vitiated water since the cholera of 1832. However repulsive to the feelings the swallowing of human excrement may be, it does not appear to be very injurious so long as it comes from healthy persons, but when it proceeds from cholera patients, and probably patients with some other maladies, it is a means of communicating disease.

[Part 2 appeared in the 13 December issue.]

bottom of book image