Wednesday, March 28, 2012

After I discovered the possible cause of death of my grandmother’s sister in the late 1800s from cholera infantum, I began researching to better understand the disease. That search led me into a maze of historical medical information--everything from disease etiology to medicines of the past.
In 19th century American medical records, three types of cholera are mentioned. Cholera morbus, cholera infantum, and Asiatic cholera. Asiatic cholera was (and is) caused by Vibrio cholerae, which was spread by water and food contaminated by an infected person. It could also be contracted by eating raw or undercooked shellfish. This is the “real” cholera that usually occurred in epdemic waves. Here’s one reference that a writer of historical fiction might be able to use:

Cholera morbus and cholera infantum were terms for non-specific diarrhea in adults/older children and young children/infants, respectively. Cholera morbus was sometimes called the summer complaint--somewhat of an understatement based on what I've read. Cholera morbus and cholera infantum attacked from June or July to September or October.

Cholera infantum was a merciless killer, and the progression of the disease was frightening to watch. At the onset, the infant developed diarrhea. That was followed by vomiting. The infant was terribly thirsty, but couldn’t retain liquid. Soon the infant’s body became emaciated, the belly distended, and eyes sunk into the sockets. Often the little one would convulse. The skin became flaccid, cold, and gray. As the disease advanced to the end, the infant would sink into a coma and die.

The symptoms of cholera morbus were similar to cholera infantum and just as frightening. They began with excessive weakness and burning in the stomach. Then the person began to vomit and developed diarrhea. The patient was extremely thirsty, but unable to keep anything down.  As the disease progressed, the victim’s pulse grew weak and breathing became difficult. As with cholera infantum, the skin grew pale and cold. Eyes sunk in their sockets, looking heavy, dull, and sometimes filmy. Convulsions and severe cramping of the legs would occur.  

During the 1800s and into the early 1900s, doctors had numerous hypotheses for the origin of these two diseases. Theories changed as the centuries progressed. Excess bile in the stomach, miasmas of the air, unhealthy breast milk, crowded living quarters. . .the list is lengthy. Treatments changed as well. Cathartics, emetics, and bleeding, to herbal remedies and opiates. Some of the treatments had merit; others were deadly. The etiology of these two diseases appears to be unknown, but they were probably caused by a variety of gastrointestinal pathogens.

These tragic diseases could certainly lend some drama to the plot of an historical novel. Perhaps the miraculous recovery of an infant. Or a heroine/hero bitter about the loss of her infant or family member.

In closing, I want to stress that the information I’ve presented here is by no means complete. The topic is a broad one, and the information, especially in old documents, is scattered and sometimes contradictory.


Here are two references I found:

Remarks of the Cholera Morbus: Containing a Description of the Disease the Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment; H. Young, M.D.;Smith, Elder, and Co. Cornhill; 1818 (I think. I can’t clearly read the Roman numerals.)

Save the Babies, American Public Health Reform and the Prevention of Infant Mortality, 1850-1929; Richard A. Meckel; The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1990


  1. Such an interesting article. Such a tragic disease! I can imagine the fear a mother would feel at the onset of even an everyday sickness. I write the time period, and I love researching it, but I surely would not want to have lived with the dread that must have accompanied it.

    Thanks, Candice!

  2. That's what I think about. . .the dread that mothers would feel. I wonder if they felt differently than we do? Like, was death more an accepted part of life. I sort of doubt it, though. One book I read said that one in ten women died in childbirth in the 1800s. I wonder if that's really accurate. ?


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