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Cholera and the Broad Street Pump

You are Joseph Phillips

Faction: Indeterminate
Ideological Reference: Jeremy Bentham

As Overseer of the Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor of St. James Parish, your daily duties managing fiscal relief and supervising the workhouse for the poor. You are young, energetic and feel that your role puts you in the position to challenge any proposals that may not be financially manageable or in the interests of the Parish. You are also a supporter of the Unitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a pillar in the Sanitarian movement.


GENERAL DIRECTIVE: You are a member of the special Sanitary Committee of the Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor of St. James Parish. On 14 August 1854, you and your colleagues on the General Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor voted to forgo standard meeting protocols and form this special emergency response committee to address any threat of Malignant Cholera throughout the parish. Collectively, you wield the power and financial backing to make whatever arrangements you deem necessary regarding administrative courses of action, medical responses, future meetings, etc.


•    Chapter 1 of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (2006).
•    Chapters 2 and 10 of Disease Maps: Epidemics on the Ground by Tom Koch (2011).
•    Anticontagionism between 1821 and 1867 by Erwin Ackerknecht (1948).


YOU ARE IN THE “Indeterminate” FACTION.

You and the other Indeterminate members of the Board do not have fixed opinions as to the origins of Cholera. As such, your opinions may be influenced by compelling scientific arguments made by members of the other factions.

Anti-contagionist members of the Board believe that the Cholera outbreak may be explained by a number of factors, including: classic Hippocratic epidemic constitution, atmospheric influences, elevation above sea level, miasma arising from exposure to decaying animal or vegetable matter, diet, lifestyle and socioeconomic status. No human-to-human transmission is involved.

The Contagionist members of the Board believe that Cholera is transmitted by the direct passage of some chemical, physical  or biological  agent  originating from  a sick person and transmitted to a susceptible victim by contact or fomites or, for a relatively short distance, through the atmosphere.

PLEASE NOTE: Although you and your faction colleagues do not have fixed ideas on specific notions of disease, your specific agendas may be quite different.  Over the course  of our debate, and even outside  of class, you may (and should)  consult with one another to identify those issues upon which you can agree as well as those upon which you disagree. For the purposes of final voting on any measures of remediation and prevention, some degree of consensus will be required. It will be important to listen closely to arguments so that you may determine your own position. At every opportunity, press your Anti-contagionist and Contagionist colleagues for evidence and scientific data to support their arguments. For final voting, however, you may remain Indeterminate and abstain if you so choose.

SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS: The format of the meeting is divided into two class sessions. For Session I, you will prepare a short (< 1 page) written statement that introduces your character and your ideologies on Cholera. You will deliver this statement as a speech of roughly 1-2 minutes, detailing your position and making specific suggestions that can be debated and brought to a vote in Session II. You should address three questions: What is the source of the outbreak? How is Cholera communicated from person to person? And, what steps should be taken to contain the outbreak?


The Special Committee convenes on the evening of Thursday, 7 September 1854. In the course of your research, be sure to look into the conditions and mortality data in the St. James Workhouse. When invited by Chairman Crane, you will stand and deliver your personal statement on the status of the Workhouse, the medical services that Parish poor receive, and general sanitation services within the Parish (invoking ideas of the Sanitarians Bentham and Edwin Chadwick). Be sure to propose any specific remedial actions by the end of Session I so that these issues may be debated and brought to a final vote at the end of Session II.

Between the two class sessions, Dr. John Snow requested to be heard by the Board and has testified that the Cholera outbreak is being driven by contaminated water originating from the pump located on Broad Street. He has recommended that the Board remove the handle from the Broad Street pump immediately, so as to interrupt public access to what he considers as a tainted water supply. In preparation for Session II, use the online Cholera Data Manager to examine closely the data upon which Dr. Snow bases his arguments. Also consult Dr. Snow’s map and the accompanying Excel spreadsheets to conduct your own analyses of these data and raise further questions and/or support for your arguments. You should also examine William Farr’s data and figures and utilize them similarly.

When necessary, you will argue on behalf of Sanitarian interests and the possible role of hygiene issues causing the current Cholera outbreak. For example, you might refer to the 1842 report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, commissioned by the Sanitarian Edwin Chadwick, for background on Sanitarian philosophies. You recognize the utility of removing the pump handle from the Broad Street pump, in that it is a relatively inexpensive test of whether contaminated water is the primary problem.

“Indeterminate” FACTION STRATEGY

Your faction, the Indeterminates, will consider Dr. Snow’s recommendation thoughtfully, and you will scrutinize any data that is presented during the debate. Most importantly, however, you and your faction colleagues recognize that action must be taken and ideologies should not interfere with your decision making.  Specific steps must be implemented promptly, and you are seeking to embrace compelling arguments that strike you as common sensical, practical and effective. Challenge your colleagues on the Board if they seem unreasonable, unclear or unconvincing in their arguments. Ask insightful questions so that you may form your own opinions. You may reserve the right to abstain from any final votes; in this respect, also realize that your faction holds the power to sway the outcomes of votes in one direction or another.

To earn bonus credit for this role-playing activity, you must also achieve your secret objective:

Have the Board vote on eliminating all Parish cesspits, latrines and cesspools, replacing them with newer technologies such as individual water closets that connect to sewers leading directly into the Thames River.