Cholera: The Mere Mention of the Word Caused Fear

A poster warning residents to boil their water to avoid cholera

Cholera: The Mere Mention of the Word Caused Fear

Cholera. The mere mention of the word was enough to cause fear in 19th century communities. The disease struck suddenly and killed quickly. Its cause wasn’t identified until the 1850s.


Cholera is caused by a bacteria and, like typhoid, is spread by food or water contaminated with feces. Basic sanitation and water purification can keep infection at bay.

Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle pain
  • Dehydration

Symptoms sometimes present themselves the same day a victim is exposed to the bacteria. The disease kills the healthy and weak alike.

Epidemics and Pandemics

John Snow
John Snow

During the 19th century, there were several cholera outbreaks. In 1854, Dr. John Snow was the first to track the spread of a disease and find its source. He correctly concluded that an outbreak in London was caused by a contaminated well.

The pump caused 500 deaths in 10 days. Once the handle was removed and the pump could no longer be used, the number of new cases stopped.

Before the discovery of the cholera bacteria, people believed the disease was caused by bad vapors and often burned tar to cleanse the air.

A cholera vaccine was developed in 1892, and the final epidemic in the United States occurred in 1911.

Famous Deaths

A public service poster on the prevention of cholera
A public service poster on the prevention of cholera

Cholera claimed the lives of many in the Victorian and Edwardian eras with a death rate of up to 50 percent.

Some notable people who died of the disease before 1920 include:

  • President James Polk
  • French King Charles X
  • World War I Lt. General Frederick Stanley Maude
  • The final full blooded Aborigine in Tasmania, William Lanne
  • Some historians believe Peter Tchaikovsky died of cholera; others believe suicide.

Today, cholera is rare in the developed world thanks to sanitation. In the developing world, however, there are millions of cases annually.


Updated: 26 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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