Skip to Main Content

Cholera and the Broad Street Pump

You are Peter Waggett

Faction: Indeterminate
Ideological Reference: William Lauder Lindsay

Your personal beliefs are aligned with Anti-contagionism, and you are a supporter of the work of William Lauder Lindsay who has argued that strong emotions such as fear make humans susceptible to diseases. However, Lauder Lindsay has also conducted experiments demonstrating that Cholera can be communicated to plants and lower animals. Use the debate to reconcile these apparently disparate notions of disease, and seek to find clarity among your fellow Indeterminates.


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. Prior to the meeting you have taken the time to look into the atmospheric conditions over the past two weeks. When invited by Chairman Frederick Crane, you will stand and deliver your personal statement on Lauder Lindsay's work. Also, listen intently and take notes as 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 will argue that transmission (e.g. Snow’s theory) is a possible mechanism driving the current Cholera outbreak. In addition, you will comment on the effects of Cholera on plants and lower animals. You may choose to question the utility of removing the pump handle from the Broad Street pump, if you feel that scientific justifications are not being made. Since you are not fully steadfast in your convictions, you may be swayed by particularly strong arguments and/or sound use of scientific data.

“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 in favor of removing the Broad Street pump handle as a temporary measure rather than a permanent one. Given the evidence of Cholera’s communicability, you feel that an experiment of 3-4 days in duration has merit and is of minimal inconvenience to the parish.