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A cholera outbreak satirized

A cholera outbreak satirized

Book illustrator and cartoonist Robert Cruikshank (1789-1856) produced this image of a cholera patient as a companion to A Cholera Doctor c.1832. His ‘Random Shots’ were priced at 3 pence (roughly 85p today).

The first recorded case of cholera in England occurred in Sunderland, 23 October 1831. The pandemic lasted 1831-1832 and there would be further outbreaks of the disease in the 1840s and 1850s. The majority of victims were poor: Cruikshank’s skinny patient, dressed in rags, sits on a stool labelled ‘starvation’ and has the blue/purple skin that was a symptom of the disease. The blue pill in his hand contained mercury and acted as a purgative (i.e. it had a powerful laxative effect or caused diarrhoea). The bottle of liquid, to be taken twice daily, is an emetic (meaning that it induced vomiting). The strange creature lurking under the table with the words ‘Fee Fo Fum’ on its belly, recalls the rhyme from Jack and the Beanstalk: “I smell the blood of an Englishman . . .” Meanwhile, the top of the Board of Health table is propped up on legs formed from bones. 

It seems a grotesque subject for a cartoon but Cruikshank was not the only person to satirise the lack of consensus in the medical profession, stark contrast between the destitute victims and affluent doctors and the Government policies around public health. Until John Snow traced the cause of a cholera outbreak in London to a contaminated water pump, in 1854, there was no accepted wisdom as to either the cause of, or cure for, cholera. Lax housekeeping and cheap liquor were often blamed. 

Remember that evidence isn’t always in the form of handwritten or printed text: studying cartoons can tell you something important about public perceptions, how information was communicated and even about illustrative techniques. Generally speaking, sources relating to the cholera outbreaks can provide information about the history of medicine and public health and government policies. 

Reference: RB 616.932 BEL, Cruikshank, R., A cholera patient (18- -?), Rare Books, Newcastle University Special Collections, GB 186.

Potential research ideas

The cholera patient cartoon could prompt research into the cholera outbreaks that occurred in Newcastle and Gateshead in 1831-1832 and again in 1853-1854. At the time, there was no accepted wisdom in the medical profession as to either the causes of cholera or the cure. You could examine a broad range of materials, from broadsides and other printed ephemera to statistical records, official reports and first-hand accounts to find out what people thought could be behind the epidemics and what action was taken by various bodies. You might investigate the impact that cholera outbreaks had on public health and the professionalisation of disease control. Did the cholera outbreaks have wider implications beyond public health? For example, did they have any effect on housing and town planning? You might look at historic maps to see where the outbreaks were clustered. Is there anything that characterised those hotspots? In the Nineteenth Century, growing towns were characterised by over-crowding, poor housing, bad water and disease. Can you discover at what point poverty became linked with disease? Disease was often thought to be associated with poor moral and spiritual conditions but, in time, came to be blamed on poor social and environmental conditions. What lessons were learned? And by whom? How has public health developed since the mid-Nineteenth Century?

Selected background reading

What can I find here in Special Collections?

What can I find elsewhere?

  • Newspapers can be a fantastic source of information. Through the library, you have access to a wide range of digitised historic newspapers; local, national, and international:
  • Tyne and Wear Archives holds significant material relating to the Local Board of Health and public health. For example, searching the archive catalogue for ‘public health’ finds (among many other entries):
    • L/PA/1049 Register of persons who have died of cholera at Newcastle upon Tyne, 25 October 1831 – 11 March 1832.
    • L/PA/60/1 Sketch of the sanitary history of Newcastle upon Tyne. 

For further information into UK political life and social issues

Our many medical print collections contain material relating to cholera. The principal medical collections are: 

The Medical Collection contains 2,000 books and pamphlets published 1761-1897 that cover a broad range of medical subjects.

The Pybus (Professor Frederick) Collection comprises some 2,000 books that were formerly owned by local surgeon Frederick Pybus (1883-1975), many of which are classic medical works. The earliest item in the collection is a John Arderne manuscript. The collection is particularly rich in anatomy, surgery and medical illustration.

The Clarke (Edwin) Medical Collection was built-up by neurologist and medical historian, Edwin Clarke (1919-1996). It comprises 450 books, pamphlets and some archival documents, dating 1557-1991.

You will also find relevant material in the 19th Century Collection and Clarke (Edwin) Local Collection.  

The Rare Books collection contains Collections relative to the cholera at Gateshead, in the county of Durham, 1831 and Collections relative to the outbreak of cholera at Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead and the surrounding districts … in 1853-1854 … , which both comprise pamphlets, broadsides, posters, Board of Health documents, regulations, manuscript correspondence, first-hand accounts, daily statistics, clinical observations, cartoons, songs and cuttings. 

The Donaldson (Sir Liam) Archive comprises the political and personal papers of the 15th Chief Medical Officer for England and former Chancellor of Newcastle University, Liam Donaldson (b.1949). There is a particular emphasis on health care management in the North of England 1959-2010.

Dr. Charles Gibb (1824-1916) worked at the Newcastle Infirmary before setting up in private practice. The Gibb (Charles) Archive Is a small collection of papers relating to his early career. It includes CG 3/9 Report of the cases of cholera and choleraic diarrhoea treated at the Newcastle upon Tyne Infirmary during the present epidemic. With observations thereon by Charles John Gibb. London: W Tyler, 1853. [Read before the Newcastle and Gateshead Pathological Society on 11 Nov 1853].

The Pybus (Professor Frederick) Archive contains the personal and academic research of Frederick Pybus (1883-1975). Many of the records relate to his career; some to his collection of significant historic medical books.

The Hospital Archives of Newcastle Royal Infirmary include hospital administration records from he Newcastle Infirmary, Royal Victoria Infirmary and Newcastle Dispensary, 1786-1998.