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Health Crises throughout History (January 2022): Cholera


Cholera: A Worldwide History, by S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler, presents a quick and readable but detailed history of the disease. Its significant use of primary documents and statistics makes for engaging reading for those who are not involved in the health profession but does limit the scope primarily to the 19th century, with limited attention to the modern impacts of cholera.

John Snow is considered one of the founders of epidemiology for his work in tracing the cause of a cholera outbreak in London in 1854. Investigating Cholera in Broad Street: A History in Documents, edited by Peter Vinten-Johansen, assembles documents from five investigations into the cause of the outbreak, and also provides vocabulary and historical glosses, as well as “Questions to Consider” to encourage the reader to think critically about the documents.

Russia is notable for being the first country in Europe to be afflicted with cholera and also the last to overcome it. A close look at two cholera outbreaks in Saratov, Disease, Health Care and Government in Late Imperial Russia: Life and Death on the Volga, 1823–1914 focuses on the governmental factors that helped cause the outbreaks and failed to resolve them. Author Charlotte E. Henze is particularly interested in how successful tsarist Russia had been at its attempts at modernization and the implications this has for study of the breakdown of the empire.

In Epidemics, Empire, and Environments: Cholera in Madras and Quebec City, 1818– 1910, Michael Zeheter examines differing responses to cholera in two British colonies. The methods and successes in containing cholera in different colonies are seen to be mostly caused by governmental structure and local reactions, making it clear that continuing difficulties with cholera are also caused by such “man-made” factors.

Cholera is a disease rarely seen in developed countries and is easily treatable, yet it continues to be a major concern in Africa and Southeast Asia, where it has become endemic. Africa in the Time of Cholera: A History of Pandemics from 1817 to the Present, by Myron Echenberg, traces six recent cholera pandemics in Africa to examine the roots of the current crisis. This book does a particularly good job of highlighting the societal factors that contribute to the spread of cholera in Africa.

A detailed look at the modern outbreak of cholera in Haiti in 2010, Deadly River: Cholera and Cover-Up in Post-Earthquake Haiti by Ralph R. Frerichs, also examines the political controversy between two opposing theories for the cause of the outbreak: whether it arose naturally from the environment or was carried to Haiti by UN aid workers, and how this helped to prolong the outbreak.

Works Cited