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J Public Health Policy. 2011 Aug;32(3):320-33. doi: 10.1057/jphp.2011.20. Epub 2011 May 5.

Cholera, canals, and contagion: Rediscovering Dr. Beck's report.

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Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Room 678, 155 College Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5T 3M7.


Cholera first appeared in North America (in Montreal and Quebec) in 1832 and spread rapidly across the eastern half of the continent. The dispatch of American disease control experts to Lower Canada in anticipation of cholera's spread implies that medical professionals expected spread, possibly from contagion, even though the notion that cholera was contagious was disparaged in medical writings of the time, and would be until John Snow's landmark work in London in the 1850s. Snow's insights derived largely from his observations on spatial and temporal patterns of cholera cases. We discuss a document from the 1832 epidemic, the report of Dr. Lewis Beck to New York's Governor Throop, which anticipates Snow in presenting geospatial data that imply cholera's contagiousness. Beck shows that the movements of immigrants along the newly completed New York state canal system resulted in sequential cholera outbreaks along the canal's path. Although aware of the degree to which this suggested contagion, Beck argues strenuously against the contagiousness of cholera. We explore the social context of early nineteenth-century medicine that probably led Beck to disbelieve his own observations, and to favor a medical model inconsistent with his data. Themes that emerge from our inquiry include belief in disease as a physical manifestation of defective morality, stigmatization of the poor and immigrant groups, and reluctance to overturn prevailing medical models that themselves reflected the economic position of medical practitioners. We show that these themes continue to serve as obstacles to innovation in medical and public health practice today.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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