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Cholera's Influence

Cholera’s influence on the city’s first hospitals, orphanages and city water supply systems

   A recent cholera epidemic has devastated Haiti, killing over 1500 people and hospitalizing 25,000. Cholera, caused by a waterborne bacterium, thrives in areas of unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and shortages of clean water. It results in diarrhea and rapidly fatal dehydration unless treated promptly with fluids and antibiotics.                                           
   The Haitian epidemic resulted from conditions after recent tropical storms and the devastating January earthquake. It is a reminder that cholera, a disease that wreaked worldwide havoc in the 19th Century, can still ravage the 21st Century Third World.             
    Because improved sanitation and modern medicine have drastically reduced the threat of cholera in the industrialized world, few remember its impact on the United States two centuries ago. Cities, including Chicago, were plagued by successive cholera epidemics. Because Chicago developed along Lake Michigan, its early history was profoundly influenced by those outbreaks, and vestiges of that influence remain today.
   Until 1816, cholera was a disease limited to South Asia. The first cholera epidemic remained contained in eastern Asia until 1823. However, in 1826 a second Asian pandemic began and cholera was carried by Russian troops into Poland in 1831. Within a year, the disease was endemic in Europe and the British Isles, devastating London and Paris. It spread as a byproduct of the early Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered rapid transportation, urban population migration, crowded slums, inadequate water supplies, ineffective elimination of sewage, and unprepared city governments all played a part.
   With trepidation, Americans read in their newspapers of the European epidemic.  Inevitably, immigrants on crowded ships from Britain brought cholera to Montreal in 1831. Cholera crossed the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes, cutting a swath through Buffalo, Detroit and the Eastern Seaboard cities.                                                                      
    Cholera reached Chicago as a consequence of the 1832 Black Hawk War.  Driven from Illinois, Chief Black Hawk, leader of the Sauk and Fox tribes, led a party from Iowa back across the Mississippi. The Illinois Governor dispatched the Illinois militia and requested several thousand federal troops who arrived on ships from Buffalo commanded by General Winfield Scott (future leader of American troops during the Mexican–American War).  This move was probably an overreaction since Black Hawk’s “hostile war party” of only 1000 included 600 women and children, bearing seeds for planting crops.
     The Illinois militia quickly dispatched Black Hawk, ending forever the Native American threat to the area. However, General Scott’s troops, who proved unnecessary, brought cholera from Buffalo to Fort Dearborn and hundreds died just before Chicago was incorporated in 1833.
   The continuing threat of cholera was impetus for the creation of the Chicago Board of Health in 1835. Despite this, subsequent cholera epidemics broke out in 1845 (traveling up the Mississippi and brought by workers on the Illinois & Michigan Canal), and at least four other times before 1873, killing thousands.
   Those cholera epidemics were also responsible for Chicago’s first hospitals, several small temporary structures built in the 1840’s and 1850’s designed to isolate cholera and smallpox victims. Inadequate for Chicago’s burgeoning population, they were replaced by Mercy Hospital, the oldest continuously running hospital in Chicago.   
   Today, orphanages, homes for parentless children, are a little remembered historical footnote. But they were once prominent institutions housing thousands in 19th Century Chicago. The first Chicago orphanage, the Chicago Orphan Asylum and the Catholic Orphan Asylum, began as a result of an 1849 cholera epidemic, which left many children without parents. Social concerns caused orphanages to disappear eventually but the eradication of cholera was one reason they were no longer necessary.                             
   An 1851 cholera epidemic prompted creation of Chicago’s first public water board. The board commissioned an engineer with previous experience working on the Erie Canal to design a city water supply system. The city’s first water pipes were laid with a goal of preventing cholera and other diseases as well as fighting fires in wooden structures of the central business district.
   The early burial grounds in Chicago were near Lake Michigan at Fort Dearborn, along the river. In the 1840’s a large city cemetery complex extended in what is now Lincoln Park, including land the city purchased from the estate of a wealthy cholera victim. After another cholera epidemic the proximity of the city cemetery to the water supply became a public health concern. In the 1860’s large numbers of bodies were transported to cemeteries farther from the lake, including Graceland, Rosehill, and Oak Woods.   
   Improvements in sewage and sanitation finally ended the scourge of cholera in Chicago in the early 1880’s. Over the years there were reports of a terrible 1885 epidemic of cholera and typhoid fever that killed 90,000. It is almost certainly an urban myth since no contemporaneous accounts exist, which would be incredible considering the improbably high number of deaths. By then, cholera had basically been eradicated in Chicago.
   J. B. Conant, President of Harvard University between 1933 and 1953, was a scientist/educator who believed history was taught with a blind eye toward science. He was aware much of history is the result of not only scientific discoveries, but of phenomena like epidemics. Cholera is an excellent example. Today, cholera’s impact on early Chicago has been largely forgotten. Barring a cataclysmic natural disaster or major societal upheaval, Chicagoans will never again experience a cholera epidemic. But the story of cholera is as integral to the fabric of Chicago as the colorful accounts of crooked politicians, tragic fires, and criminals that regale us in the history books.

Published: April 10, 2011
Issue: 2011 Spring Issue


What about reversing the river?
Your otherwise excellent article seems to have missed the two most unique impacts cholera had on the City of Chicago: 1) Building canals and locks to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and 2) Raise downtown buildings off of ground level (by as much as five meters). See for example http://hydrologydays.colostate.edu/Abstracts_09/MarceloGarcia_abs.pdf
Jeanja, Apr-16-2011