Cabbage and cholera in St. Louis

One of the things we are told to write about when we write letters of recommendation for students is how good they are at leading and moving ahead in the face of uncertainty. Apparently one is supposed to take action even when the correct path is unclear. We academics are not thrilled to hear this. We like to move ahead with evidence, when we know what will happen. Unfortunately, the world is not willing to wait for us. So tell the world that your damp-cheeked students act decisively in the face of confusion, so they can get that job, get that internship.

One of the ways we can understand how to act is to examine past actions. This was the approach taken by Andrew Hurley, professor of history at University of Missouri at St. Louis on Thursday night 8 November 2012 at the annual Whitney and Anna Harris Conservation Forum sponsored by a bunch of places but most of all by University of Missouri at St. Louis, UMSL. This year it was focused on Environmental Issues of St. Louis: Past, Present, and Future.

Andrew used cholera as a focus. He didn’t put the talk together exactly the way I would have, so this is not a recap from his talk but a jump off from it. Apparently there were three big cholera epidemics in St. Louis, beginning in 1832, 1848, and 1866. According to the talk, and Notes upon the history of cholera in St. Louis, by Robert Moore, the first epidemic started in Jefferson barracks south of the city. It came from Quebec, brought by soldiers. It killed 20 people a day, and the town only had about 8,000 people. It came again the following year, apparently from New Orleans. The next epidemic came in 1848, now to a city of 63,471, according to Moore. The last big epidemic was in 1866, after the cause of cholera had been figured out to come from contaminated drinking water.

What is interesting to me, is what people thought about the cause of cholera before they knew. Clearly they knew that cholera came to the city from elsewhere, from sick people or sick something on the steamers that came up the Mississippi. Then what? They thought it came from filth. Or from vegetables, especially cabbage, so these were outlawed inside the city. Sometimes they fumigated the city. They complained about and ultimately drained a bunch of sink holes and ponds. Trash came under scrutiny. Control was difficult, poorly centralized. Cabbages were everywhere.

Today we can look at what they did. They had a problem. They tried to control it. Vegetables were outlawed. Pointless. Ponds were drained. Possibly helpful. Immigrants were quarantined. Hard to control. Clean and tidy lives help against various diseases, but the fumigations probably only exacerbated asthma, if they had it back in those wormy times. The other really interesting thing was that control did not work until they had a strong health department that enforced the strictures. This doesn’t help when the limits are pointless, but it is the only way when the limits matter.

If our cholera is climate change, and the great extinction, what are our cabbages and what are our contaminated wells? Where is our centralized control? The talk made me think. I love St. Louis and its early history, clearly explained by Patricia Cleary, who got her BA from Rice University and wrote about colonial St. Louis.

Besides Andrew, there were a bunch of speakers including the mayor of University City, Shelley Welsch, Catherine Werner from the St. Louis Mayor’s Office, Charles Nilon from Mizzou, University of Missouri-Columbia. Don’t you just love that name, Mizzou? Almost makes it worth being there.

It was the grab bag of conservation efforts past and present, and how we understand our complex landscape. I’m glad to hear U City was early with recycling. But I wonder what cabbages we are forbidding as we drink out of the contaminated pump.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in environment, history, St. Louis and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cabbage and cholera in St. Louis

  1. joy says:

    Reblogged this on Thinkings or thoughts? and commented:
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  2. Bill Chance says:

    Very interesting entry. I think that communicable diseases have had a greater effect on history than we usually give credit for – especially in cases where exploration or advances in technology have exposed populations to new disease which decimates the populations.

    Thanks for sharing.

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