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Cholera and the Broad Street Pump

You are Robert Shepway

Faction: Anti-contagionist
Ideological Reference: William Farr

You are swayed by the arguments of William Farr, whose zymotic theory of disease incorporates some anti-contagionist viewpoints - particularly that elevation is a driving factor in disease. Furthermore, Farr’s arguments are based on extensive data from across England. Review his data and familiarize yourself with his conclusions about the relationship between elevation and miasmas.


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 “Anti-contagionist” FACTION.

You and the other Anti-contagionist members of the Board believe that the Cholera outbreak may be explained by a number of physical, chemical and social factors, including: classic Hippocratic epidemic constitution, atmospheric influences, elevation above sea level, miasmas 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 relatively short distances, through the atmosphere.

The Indeterminate members of  the Board do not have fixed opinions as to the origins of Cholera. As such, sound scientific arguments made by members of the   other factions may sway the opinion of these Board members.

PLEASE NOTE: Although you and your faction colleagues may agree as to the general Anti-contagionist notions of disease, your specific beliefs 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 is required; it is particularly  clear that you cannot advance the Anti-contagionist agenda without soliciting the support of other, dissenting Board members. So, it will  be important to  develop arguments that will be convincing to Indeterminate Board members, whose votes will allow you to champion your own beliefs. Once you identify who are  the  Indeterminates, wisely use you time during the debate sessions and outside of class, via emails and in person as necessary, to compel them to join your cause.

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, you should familiarize yourself with what has occurred over the past week. When invited by Chairman Frederick Crane, you will stand and deliver your personal statement. Also, listen intently and take notes as your colleagues make their presentations. 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.

Whenever necessary, you must strongly argue for zymosis as the cause of the current Cholera outbreak. Question the utility of removing the pump handle from the Broad Street pump, particularly because you believe disease to be caused by the introduction into the body of toxic, non-living substances specific for each disease. As far as you know, unusual poisons have not been found in Broad Street pump water. However, while steadfast in your convictions, you also consider yourself open to particularly strong arguments and/or sound use of scientific data.

“Anti-Contagionist” FACTION STRATEGY

Your faction, the Anti-contagionists, will likely vote against Dr. Snow’s recommendation, but you may be swayed by any particularly strong arguments or data that are presented. Consider the perspectives of the Sanitarians Edwin Chadwick, Thomas Sydenham, and T. Southwood Smith (from internet sources and fellow Board members). You are generally supportive of any remedial or preventive measure that was widely in use at the time (e.g. the use of chlorine or chloride of lime for washing). You are also in favor of persistent communication with Parish residents about the virtues of pure air, cleanliness of person, of house and of premises, and temperance with respect to the consumption of spirituous liquors. You should endorse that the Board recirculate among Parish residents handbills with language to this effect. In your arguments, make specific references to existing language in the draft handbill that has been circulated among Board members and suggest any changes to the handbill language that you feel are warranted.

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

Have the Board vote in favor of implementing any strategy to minimize sources of decomposing organic matter in the parish (i.e. proper drainage, sewage disposal, the regulation of burial practices and of industries dealing in animal products such as slaughtering or tanning, and other municipal reforms).