Most of us shrug off pandemics as the stuff of movies (Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman) or events that occurred long ago and are unlikely to occur in our lifetimes despite what seem like annual panic reports emanating from the media. One of the most recent events, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, killed 20 million people in a worldwide population of 1.8 billion, including the character Lavinia in Downton Abbey and 575,000 Americans in a population of 106 million.Let’s look at one pandemic, the Second Cholera Epidemic of 1830-1851, focusing on the California Gold Rush years.
First, what is cholera? The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) defines the disease as “an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholera and is transmitted by contaminated food or water. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but sometimes it can be severe.” The incubation period is one to five days and the proper treatment is intravenous rehydration.
Before medical professionals understood the science – largely the need for clean water supplies – the infection was rarely “mild.” One could appear perfectly healthy at dawn and be dead by sundown. Cholera, yellow fever, and malaria were the principal reasons fortune hunters from the eastern United States chose to sail around Cape Horn (i.e., the entire continent of South America) or to travel across the continent (before the advent of railroads) rather than take a “short cut” 47 miles across the isthmus of Panama (before the completion of the Panama Company Railroad in 1855).Travelers made the trip in mosquito-infested territory partly by canoe and partly by mules. If all went well, which it seldom did, due to the overwhelming number of travelers, one could make the trip across the isthmus in four to eight days and then pray that a steamship bound for San Francisco was on time and not overbooked. Delays meant increasing chances of infection by mosquitoes or unsanitary food or water. As H.W. Brands (The Age of Gold) and David Lavender (The Great Persuader) graphically illustrate, many fortune hunters who chose the short cut ended their quest in a Panamanian grave. Perhaps being stuck on that tarmac for two hours was not so terrible after all.
But making it to California did not guarantee the good health of the Forty-Niners. Lavender describes an outbreak in Sacramento as follows:
“Cholera, a periodic scourge in the East and Midwest, reached California by ship during the fall of 1850. Sacramento’s first case was a man who dropped writhing on the new levee on October 20. Soon sixty cases were cropping up each day. In a single week 188 of the victims died. By November 9 the toll was said to have reached 600, including seventeen doctors – an estimate, since no one was keeping accurate records. In any event, it was bad enough that four fifths of the city’s terrified populace fled from the town.” (Note: Sacramento’s population in 1850 was approximately 6,800)
– The Great Persuader, p. 38
How would we deal with such a pandemic today? We would like to think cholera has been eradicated, but the CDC reports that worldwide there are an estimated three to five million cases of cholera and roughly one hundred thousand deaths from the disease every year. We can only hope that advances in science and more plentiful resources will make cholera a disease of the past.
- H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold. New York, New York. Anchor Books, 2002.
- David Lavender, The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York. Doubleday & Co., 1970.
- CDC, Cholera – Vibrio cholera infection. http://www.cdc.gov/cholera/illness.html