Monday, November 20, 2023

Solving The Mystery of Cholera in Victorian London

 by Edwina Kiernan

During the Victorian era, against the backdrop of industrial revolution and urbanization, a sinister adversary emerged: cholera. 

This deadly disease claimed countless lives, fostering a growing atmosphere of fear and confusion. The quest to understand cholera and its mode of transmission would become a pivotal chapter in the history of public health. 

This article explores the Victorian struggle to comprehend and combat the cholera epidemic.

The Menace

Cholera, a bacterial infection, wreaked havoc throughout Victorian England. Characterized by severe diarrhea and vomiting, cholera led to rapid dehydration and, in many cases, death within hours. This deadly disease struck fear into the hearts of Victorians as its mode of transmission was, as yet, unknown.

Initially, the prevailing belief was that cholera spread through miasma — noxious fumes arising from decomposing organic matter. This misconception hindered efforts made to grasp the true nature of the disease and devise effective preventive measures.

Patients suffering from cholera, 1854
Patients suffering from cholera, 1854

The Mastermind

One of the key figures in unraveling the mystery of cholera transmission was Dr. John Snow, a British physician. Snow challenged the prevailing miasma theory, proposing an alternative hypothesis: cholera’s transmission was waterborne. 

Through meticulous investigation and mapping of cholera cases in London, Snow identified a striking correlation between incidences of the disease and contaminated water sources. His famous map of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak highlighted a cluster of cases centered around a contaminated public water pump. 

Snow's work laid the foundation for understanding that cholera was not airborne as previously believed, but waterborne — a revolutionary concept that reshaped public health strategies.

John Snow, physician
John Snow, physician

The Mystery Solved

The Broad Street cholera outbreak, also known as the Golden Square outbreak, was a watershed moment in the history of epidemiology. In the summer of 1854, a densely populated area in London experienced a sudden surge in cholera cases. 

Dr. John Snow's meticulous investigation during this outbreak provided crucial evidence supporting his waterborne transmission theory. By interviewing affected individuals and plotting cases on a map, Snow pinpointed the Broad Street water pump as the epicenter of the outbreak. 

Despite initial skepticism, the local authorities, persuaded by Snow's evidence, removed the pump handle, effectively curbing the spread of the disease. This event marked a turning point in understanding cholera, paving the way for modern epidemiology.

John Snow's cholera outbreak map

The Microbiological Proof

While Snow's epidemiological insights were groundbreaking, confirmation of the waterborne transmission theory came with later advances in microbiology. 

In the late 19th century, scientists like Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur made significant strides in understanding bacteria and their role in infectious diseases. The identification and isolation of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae provided concrete evidence linking contaminated water to the transmission of cholera. 

This microbiological confirmation not only solidified Snow's findings but also paved the way for the development of water sanitation measures that proved critical in controlling the spread of the disease.

The Measures Undertaken:

Armed with the knowledge of cholera's waterborne transmission, Victorian society initiated significant public health reforms. Sanitary measures, such as the improvement of sewage systems and the establishment of clean water supplies, became paramount in preventing cholera outbreaks. 

Legislation and policies aimed at ensuring the purity of public water sources gained prominence, transforming the urban landscape and reducing the prevalence of waterborne diseases. 

The Victorian era's battle against cholera not only revolutionized public health practices but also laid the groundwork for future advancements in understanding and combating infectious diseases.

Did You Know?

An outbreak of cholera is featured in my latest novel, The Lamp...

Find out more about The Lamp...

About The Author:

Edwina Kiernan is an award-winning author of Christian Historical Romance. She lives in rainy Ireland with her husband and son, and uses her pen to point people to Jesus - the Living Word. She also drinks more types of tea than most people realize even exist. Find out more at, and sign up for her weekly newsletter for lots of fun, fiction, freebies and faith.


  1. Thank you for posting today. Have a good Thanksgiving!

  2. Thanks for sharing this fascinating bit of history