“The Cholera Years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866” is only tangentially a medical history. Charles Rosenberg used the opening year of the three worst epidemics of cholera in the United States as lenses through which he could take snapshots of American society. In each year examined the disease spread westward across Europe to inevitably reach the shores North America. By looking at how the medical and religious communities, public officials, and the people, those represented by newspaper editorials, reacted to the stress of the impending epidemics Rosenberg was able to clearly show how society changed over the decades.
“The nest of college-birds are three
Law, Physic, and Divinity
And while these three remain combined
They keep the world oppressed and blind.
On Lab’rers money lawyers feast
Also the Doctor and the Priest.”
This poem, from 1832, shows that popular American distrust for academics is long held. However by 1848 even the upper-class was turning its back on physicians. Today we see governors who ignore the best scientific opinions and follow their own ignorance on Ebola. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same. Rosenberg attributes this to the medical communities inability to cope with epidemics, the 1832 outbreak of cholera in particular. The fact is that Galenic physician’s had never been effective. What was it that changed between 1832 and 1848 that made their ineffectiveness unacceptable? Rosenberg does not really look at what caused the change, he just shows that the general attitude did change.
Originally published in 1962 Rosenberg’s book is still readable. The writing is better, in my opinion, than most of the histories published today. I recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century American history, it provides insight to the social values of the times. I do wish that someone would take a look at what caused attitudes about physicians to change. Was it competition? Thomsonians, herbalists, and Homeopathic medicine was giving the traditional physicians competition. They were saving more people by avoiding, at least in large doses, the mercury, arsenic, and other poisons that were some of traditional physicians favorite medicines. I have read how physicians reacted to the competition. One way strategy was forming a trade union, the American Medical Association, and blackballing Homeopaths. I would like to see a scholarly paper on how people reacted to the competition.