From Cesspools to Sewage Systems

On Wednesday, January 16 Wolfgang Schäfer visited the German International School and delivered an address to the 10th, 11th and 12th grade students about one of Europe’s most severe health crises, the Cholera Epidemic of the mid-19th century.

As personal context for his presentation on the history of public sanitation, Mr.  Schäfer mentioned that in 1905 his grandfather had bought a company, A. AIRD, which built the sewage system of London. 

Due to large increases in low wage employment created by the industrial revolution, the population of London grew to 24 million people. In August 1854, people in London, especially in the poorer parts of the city, lived under terrible conditions where there was very little hygiene.  There was a dreadful stench created by cesspool trenches throughout the city, and many people began to suffer from explosive diarrhea and profuse vomiting. Soon their faces would turn blue as their blood pressure dropped and their heartbeat became irregular. After 10 days 500 people died. People tried to find a cause for the disease and came to the conclusion that it was being spread by the miasma (foul and unhealthy air).

Years later a doctor, John Snow, looked at the information available about the outbreak of cholera, and realized that the theory about the disease being transferred by bad air was incorrect, because people that worked on the sewage system didn’t get sick as often as others. Dr. Snow also thought about why the cholera wasn’t affecting people’s lungs. He was criticized for his theory, but eventually he was proved correct. The deaths caused by the cholera outbreak triggered the development of the field of epidemiological research. The improvements achieved in London made its system a model for sewage systems throughout the world. That progress over the years contributed to great improvement in public health.

Mr. Schäfer’s presentation was very stimulating, and the students learned a lot about Cholera and how it is spread.

by Anika N. 10a

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