Up until the 1866 Cholera outbreak in New York City, the common theory of how this disease was spread was believed to be a result of God’s choices. This threatening epidemic that was traveling quickly through the streets of New York demanded attention, which in turn caused new findings surrounding the germ theory of disease to be put to the test. Research conducted by John Snow in London in the 1850’s offered solid evidence as to how the disease was really spread, and how it could be eradicated. Due to the growth of investment in scientific research in the mid-nineteenth century, specifically noting John Snow’s findings surrounding Cholera, the working class in New York City experienced a popular shift from the belief in Catholicism to trusting the potential of scientific evidence.   


Cholera outbreaks occurred in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, the most notable ones being in 1832, 1849, and 1866. Specifically, the 1866 outbreak in New York City marked a time in history when scientific advancements prevailed regarding disease prevention. The most significant scientific advancement at the time was finding the root cause of the disease. Although this one discovery appears to be obvious according to modern-day knowledge, the cause of this disease was still very much a mystery during the outbreak that struck the overcrowded streets of New York City in 1866. During this time, “…three-quarters of New York’s streets lacked sewers” and “there were no ordinances or laws regulating overcrowding in residences”[1]. A typical living situation for a member of the working class included a small apartment shared by around six people, one bathroom at the end of the hallway shared by around fifteen people, one source of water down the street, and leaking sewage pipes that caused an overwhelming awful smell to always loom in the air. Even when they wanted to bathe and rid themselves of the filth from the city, they were unknowingly making themselves dirtier by “washing” with contaminated water. This caused a deadly cycle of filth within the city, and because of the lack of recognition surrounding this issue, no one was doing anything about it. Essentially, the working class’ living situation served as a transmission hot zone for bacteria and other diseases.

Everyone was aware of the fact that Cholera needed to be eradicated, but it was not until the 1850s when people started to question the health effects of the poor water and sewage systems in the streets of large cities. The popular understanding of Cholera up until Snow’s discovery in 1855 was that the epidemic was a mere “act of God”, and God believed that the poor working classes deserved to suffer the most severely[2].

John Snow pioneered the scientific advancements that occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, including the discovery of how Cholera is transmitted and proposed ideas for how to prevent future outbreaks. His findings, although fairly simple, revolutionized how people thought about sanitation and disease prevention. He is considered a hero to all major cities affected by the Cholera epidemic after 1855, and his findings alone saved thousands of people.       

When analyzing a disaster such as the Cholera epidemic, it is important to understand the actual illness. By definition, Cholera is an infection in the small intestine that is caused by bacteria. The most common form of transmission is through contaminated water, and the general symptoms include: vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. This information, of course, was not known when Cholera returned to the United States in the 1860s, but John Snow’s findings sparked the later years of research that ultimately led to this knowledge.

The EventEdit

It is beneficial to look specifically at the working class section of the population because these people suffered the worst consequences of Cholera as a result of their inferior public facilities compared to those of the upper classes[3]. During this time, the dominant religion was Catholicism, which focuses heavily on God’s power and influence over nature’s ability. The members of the working class, therefore, had an easy time associating the Cholera outbreak with God’s reasoning. The wealthier classes chose to publicize that the outbreak hit the working class the hardest because they were poor and deserved to die, while others looked past the actual reasoning behind God’s decision and chose merely to pray. Either way, no one was making a concrete effort to solve the problem at hand. This social ideology at the time is what caused the delay of actions taken to defeat the threats of Cholera.

On top of this, the working class’ unsanitary living conditions and inevitable exposure to the Cholera epidemic also caused these poor families to be constantly searching for a solution. The apartment buildings were almost always overcrowded, and an entire hall of twenty people would typically share one bathroom. The mass amount of people forced to live in such a small space were unknowingly living inside a trap of diseases. There was usually no where else for the working class to live because of high expenses, which meant that even if they were aware of the high risk of catching a deadly illness, they could not do anything except pray for the best outcome. Anyone infected would continue to show symptoms of Cholera such as vomiting and diarrhea, which contributed to an endless circulation of contaminated water throughout neighboring areas due to the limited resources[4].

Finally, the working class’ prayers began to be answered, but not at God’s expense. Notices were posted around New York City informing everyone of the cause of their illness: the water pumps. This information came from John Snow’s On The Mode of Communication of Cholera, which was published in 1855[5]. Although this knowledge was released a whole decade before the outbreak in New York City, it did not reach the United States until it was absolutely necessary. The outbreak in 1866 still killed around 50,000 Americans, but thousands of Cholera cases were prevented when sanitation was actually seen as something of value and importance. Shortly after Snow’s research became widespread throughout New York City, the Metropolitan Board of Health began to regulate the purification of water running through every pipe system throughout the city. In addition, an entire new sewage plan was created to ensure there would be no cross-contamination between drinking pipelines and waste pipelines. While the decade is still known as a time of suffering for the working class in New York City, the 1860’s revolutionized the modern understanding of infectious disease through the use of Snow’s research as a solution to the Cholera epidemic.  

Primary SourcesEdit

"Death's Dispensary"

  • A cartoon artist, George Pinwell, sketched a drawing he called “Death’s Dispensary” to appear in Fun Magazine which was based out of London[6]. Pinwell’s piece is a drawing of poor people surrounding a water pump that is being controlled by a skeleton or a figure of death. This is, of course, referring to John Snow’s recent discovery about the cause of Cholera[7]. The purpose of Pinwell’s drawing was to show the poor in a negative light, and humor his audience by highlighting the working class’s ignorance about the cause of Cholera. This piece was never reproduced in the United States, but the topic it addresses, John Snow’s discovery, was the information that quickly spread throughout New York City during 1866. Therefore, this is a valuable primary source to analyze, even when specifically looking at a Cholera outbreak in the United States. Although at a first glance the drawing may seem like a straightforward depiction of the poor unknowingly accepting the fatal effects of drinking the contaminated water, it actually represents something more profound: Pinwell’s drawing metaphorically demonstrates the newfound curiosity in the potential of science, and the beginning of relying on critical thinking and concrete answers rather than associating any unknown questions with the power of God. Pinwell’s drawing is a valuable primary source because it not only gives an idea of what life was like for the working classes in the face of an epidemic, but it is also drawn by a member of the working class. “Death’s Dispensary” might as well have been a picture rather than a drawing because it was a frequent scene amongst the poor. Children collected water for their families, and people lined up to beg for even the smallest amounts of water. Because of their ignorance surrounding the cause of the disease, the contaminated water was more valuable than anyth
    Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 6.49.37 PM

    "Death's Dispensary" by George Pinwell

    ing else to the working classes. This message is clearly shown in Pinwell’s piece because of the large group of people surrounding one unsanitary pump, just waiting to fill their small buckets. Despite the values of this primary source, it also comes with limitations. First of all, the drawing is based in London, but it was published in 1866 when the Cholera outbreak was occurring in New York City[8]. Therefore, most of the people who were reading Fun Magazine and saw Pinwell’s drawing already knew about the cause of Cholera, and were more likely to deem his piece as irrelevant. Thepicture also has the caption “Open to the poor by permission of the parish”, which suggests that the poor people were the only ones affected by the contaminated water[9]. However, because no one else is shown in the drawing, it is unclear whether the wealthy classes used other water sources and were therefore immune to the threats of Cholera, or if this was just a picture of one water pump that happened to be placed in a poorer area of the city.  </li>

    On The Mode of the Communication of Cholera

  • John Snow’s On the Mode of the Communication of Cholera was the actual piece of literature that stated how Cholera was transmitted[10]. This information, although published in London, found its way overseas to help the victims of Cholera in New York City. This book was published a decade before the outbreak in 1866, so in theory, the outbreak in New York could have been prevented altogether. Nonetheless, thousands of lives were saved due to a single piece of information. Snow’s discovery is also what sparked the new sewage system and water filtration project that is ultimately what eradicated Cholera from the list of fatal diseases. Snow’s work is what started the era of curiosity in the field of science before the germ theory even existed. He had a logical step-by-step procedure that led him to the answer of his initial question: what is the cause of Cholera and how is it spread so quickly? His process first involved observing a specific area of London (about five blocks by five blocks) and recording where exactly the Cholera cases were found. He then drew a detailed map of this area with black circles representing where there was an affected person, and noticed something: every recorded case of Cholera was within a two-block radius from a water pump on Broad Street. The unaffected people on the map had access to other water pumps, while the people with Cholera were so conveniently located to the one on Broad Street, meaning that this was their main source of water. He then concluded that Cholera is transmitted through the consumption of contaminated water. The sewage pipelines were leaking into these water pumps, therefore releasing harmful cholera-causing bacteria10 . Snow set the standard for modern experimentation, which involves asking a question, developing a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis with a planned procedure, and drawing conclusions from those findings. His research was all supported by actual evidence that he conducted himself, which is why On the Mode of the Communication of Cholera, was, and still is, so respected in the field of scientific literature. </li>

    Memory of the Disaster

    A First Hand Account (Fiction)

    Dear Diary, 

    Sophie is pale as snow and can't hold any of her food down. She can barely get any rest because of our damn neighbors; they're always shouting and screaming until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning! I thought the solution would be to keep her hydrated, but she even throws up the water right after she drinks it. Other people in the building seem to be sick too - I bet those idiots are the people who gave it to my little girl.

    I pray to God every morning and every night that somehow Sophie will soon start to smile and enjoy the dinners I make for her again. It's been hard making any money because I'm always watching over Sophie, and my boss at the store is thinking about replacing me (it's been almost 3 weeks of me having to cancel and change my shifts at the store). I'm not sure what to do! I can't leave my little girl all alone when she's dying right before my eyes, but if I make no money, there is no way for me to help. Please, please God answer my prayers.

    The mayor keeps annoucing that "help is on the way", but what is that supposed to mean? He mentioned something about some study in London that can fix Cholera, but other than that vague statement, nothing has been done to help thus far. If the mayor is right, however, and a cure exists, please let it come into our lives soon.

    - Kate

    September 16th, 1866   


    An immediate response from the outbreak of Cholera in New York City was the implementation of a new sewage system and drinking water system. The Metropolitan Board of Health headed this project, and completely separated the two systems to ensure there would be no cross contamination. The entire population of New York suddenly became more conscious of sanitation, and eventually developed into an actual livable, clean, and safe city[2]. 

    In addition to this immediate response, the Cholera outbreak of 1866 also inspired the initial ideas surrounding the germ theory of disease, which is now known as the fact that disease is spread by microorganisms. Before this definition was created, however, many suggestions and hypotheses were floating around the world of science. The ability to essentially cure a disease encouraged the act of questioning and researching rather than letting fate and God decide the outcome. From John Snow’s report and the success of new sewage systems in New York City, the germ theory of disease started to form[2].  

    See also

  •     Cholera outbreak of 1832</li></li></li></li></li></li>
  •     Cholera Outbreak of 1849 </li></li></li></li></li></li>
  •     John Snow</li></li></li></li></li></li>
  •     Fun Magazine</li></li></li></li></li></li>
  •     Broad Street Water Pump</li></li></li></li></li></li>
  •     Cholera (disease)</li></li></li></li></li></li>
  •     Germ Theory of Disease


    [1] Weinberg, Meyer. "Standards of Living Under Capitalism, 1790-1865." In A Short History of American Capitalism. S.l.: New History Press, 2003.

    [2] Dubofsky, Melvyn. "Workers, Industry, and Society, 1865-1920." In Industrialism and the American Worker, 1865-1920. Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Pub. Corp., 1975. 1-28. Freeman, Joshua B. "Adequate Medical Care." In Working-Class New York. New York:

    The New Press, 2000. 124-142.

    [3] Weinberg, Meyer. "Standards of Living Under Capitalism, 1790-1865." In A Short History of American Capitalism. S.l.: New History Press, 2003.

    [4] Rosenberg, Charles E. The Cholera Years; The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.

    [5] Pyle, G. F. "The Diffusion Of Cholera In The United States In The Nineteenth Century." Geographical Analysis, 2010, 59-75.

    [6] "Fun 1866." Bodleian Library | Home. Accessed November 4, 2014.

    [7] Pinwell, George. Death’s Dispensary. 1866. Drawing. Fun Magazine, London.

    [8] Fun 1866." Bodleian Library | Home. Accessed November 4, 2014.

    [9] Pinwell, George. Death’s Dispensary. 1866. Drawing. Fun Magazine, London.

    [10] Snow, John, and M.D. Rare Book Collection of Rush University Medical Center at the University of Chicago Friedberg. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. 2d ed. London: John Churchill, 1855.

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