“The Great Stink” & Cholera Containment

The prevailing scientific theory the time of the cholera outbreak in London was that cholera was transmitted by foul odor (miasma theory).  The concept of ‘bacteria’ wasn’t understood—many people thought if they couldn’t “see” illness causing bacteria, it wasn’t really there. People trusted the advice of “medical quacks,” instead of common sense cures to tackle the dehydration.

Faraday testing the waters of the Thames, 1855 Punch Magazine, volume 29 Westminster City Archives

Faraday testing the waters of the Thames, 1855 Punch Magazine, volume 29 Westminster City Archives

It was felt that cholera was a socioeconomic disease, associated with those of lower morality and the “poor, stinking masses.” As cities grew in population, the pre-industrial waste infrastructure was unable to handle the excess excrement.  Cities lacked the modern resources we take for granted, such as recycling and safe sewage removal.  Leaky cesspools were the standard method of waste disposal, and these compromised fresh water sources.

The Great Stink ushered in new sanitation laws. In part because the Parliament could no longer tolerate the smell of the Thames River, a new sewer system was constructed which is still in use today.  Public spending increases, which brings new parks into cities to provide fresh air.  By 1875, the Public Health Act would require all houses to have their own sanitation and water.

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