Cholera epidemics hit Cincinnati hard in 1832-33, 1849-50, 1866, and again in 1873. Each one was devistating, killing a significant portion of the population. Cholera usually kills through dehydration. It acts like a bad case of food poisoning, with the same basic symptoms. Although that sounds unpleasant, it is hard to imagine in a modern country, with access to modern medicine, how someone could die of diarrhea; but cholera is no joking matter. Otherwise healthy people sometimes fell dead within hours of their first symptoms.
There was medical treatment for cholera, but it often ensured your death rather than making you better. The scientifically accepted understanding of cholera was that it was an airborne pathogen. By being near stagnant water, corpses, or dirty streets or tenements, you could breath in the poison. This mis-understanding of its origins meant that doctors were useless in preventing cholera from spreading and had no idea how to cure it. Worse, they exacerbated the effects of the disease through their treatment. Homeopathic medicine believed that the cure to diseases mimicked the symptoms. We still “treat” hangovers with the “hair of the dog that bit you” approach, but that’s fortunately ALL that we treat that way. (The “hair of the dog” expression actually came from serious homeopathic medical practice.) In the case of cholera, doctors believed that the best way to get the cholera poison out of the body was to purge it — induce the loss of MORE bodily fluids which, of course, would speed up dehydration and kill you.
Not everybody believed in the airborne poison theory of cholera. A guy named John Lea was the founder of the Geography Theory of cholera. Lea was wrong about a lot of things. He wouldn’t have argued with the purging treatment. He didn’t understand the as-yet-unknown germ theory, and he erroneously attributed cholera to natural salts and minerals in water. To Lea, there was water that would give you cholera and water that wouldn’t. Some creek or sping water gave you cholera because it had too much lime in it as a result of the geological composition of the area. Other water, like the water in some wells, was infected by the minerals around where the well was dug or high levels of natural salts. Lea did much of his work to prove his theory in Cincinnati. He created the map of Sycamore Hill (above) showing what water supplies residents used and which ones died of the 1849 epidemic. As a general rule, his theory got support from this study. People who drank only rain water escaped getting cholera, whereas people who drank spring water almost all died. And he found similar results in tenements in Over-the-Rhine. Well-water killed you. Rain water didn’t. Lea also found an anomoly that he couldn’t explain. The people who owned the saloon on Sycamore were supplied by deadly spring water, yet escaped cholera. Lea couldn’t explain this and seems to have overlooked the possibility that there was a little saving whiskey in all the water that the saloon owners drank. And down the hill at the Walker Brewery, where workers explained to him that they drank beer all day, there was only one case of cholera, and the man who got and died from the disease was often mocked by his co-workers for drinking water rather than beer all day.
Although Lea was wrong about WHY specific water sources resulted in cholera, he was FAR closer to being right about the origins of the disease than his more respected colleagues. If people had listened to him in 1849, even if they listened to him for the wrong reasons, he would have saved tens-of-thousands of lives in Cincinnati alone. Even more importantly, if he had been taken seriously, scientists might have learned that although the mineral theory was wrong, some springs and wells were the source of the disease because they were being polluted by livestock, leaking privies, and other disgusting means of polluting the drinking water that were common in the 1800s.
Of course, nobody did listen to Lea. He was considered a nut. The “real” doctors continued to believe that it was a poison that floated through noxious air, and they kept treating the disease with purging. A few years after Lea did his research in Cincinnati, a man named John Snow traced a cholera outbreak back to a polluted well in London in 1854. Snow actually put all of the pieces together correctly. He was eventually credited as the man who discovered the cause of cholera, but that took a lot longer than it should have taken. He was still considered a nut by most of the world for another 30 or 40 years. Here in Cincinnati, we continued to believe that it was airborne until the late 1800s and, as a result, had two more extremely deadly outbreaks of the disease after both Lea and Snow were telling people not to drink the water.