This cartoon was published in 1858 at the outbreak of a period known popularly as ‘The Great Stink’. Unusually warm weather and large deposits of raw sewage into the River Thames had caused a smell so foul that the Houses of Parliament had to be closed for several weeks. The cartoon is subtitled ‘A Design for a Fresco in the New Houses of Parliament’, a reference to a rumoured plan to move parliament upstream to Hampton Court in Middlesex.
The three diseases in this cartoon are all depicted as being water-borne. This is inaccurate in the case of diphtheria and scrofula (a type of chronic tubercular abscess), but is significant in showing the extent to which theories of water-borne infectivity had gained popular acceptance in a short time. Before the 1850s, most infectious disease was presumed to have been spread by ‘miasma’ – foul-smelling airborne deposits supposed to result from rotting organic matter. This seemed to explain why prosperous areas were largely free from epidemic diseases: no smell, no infection. The prevailing theory was challenged, however, by the positive identification of a single water spout as the cause of an 1854 outbreak of cholera in Soho. It was superseded completely in 1861 when Louis Pasteur outlined his ‘germ theory’ of disease transmission.
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