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The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (1962)

by Charles E. Rosenberg

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1745117,331 (4.03)7
Cholera was the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century, as the plague had been for the fourteenth. Its defeat was a reflection not only of progress in medical knowledge but of enduring changes in American social thought. Rosenberg has focused his study on New York City, the most highly developed center of this new society. Carefully documented, full of descriptive detail, yet written with an urgent sense of the drama of the epidemic years, this narrative is as absorbing for general audiences as it is for the medical historian. In a new Afterword, Rosenberg discusses changes in historical method and concerns since the original publication of The Cholera Years. "A major work of interpretation of medical and social thought . . . this volume is also to be commended for its skillful, absorbing presentation of the background and the effects of this dread disease."--I.B. Cohen, New York Times "The Cholera Years is a masterful analysis of the moral and social interest attached to epidemic disease, providing generally applicable insights into how the connections between social change, changes in knowledge and changes in technical practice may be conceived."--Steven Shapin, Times Literary Supplement "In a way that is all too rarely done, Rosenberg has skillfully interwoven medical, social, and intellectual history to show how medicine and society interacted and changed during the 19th century. The history of medicine here takes its rightful place in the tapestry of human history."--John B. Blake, Science… (more)

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Showing 5 of 5
When I first thumbed through the book, I noticed the 18 page bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Intrigued by the documentation and period reviewed, I started the book almost immediately. It does answer many more questions that it raises. And Rosenberg avoids straying from the history of cholera to the many tangential conflicts arising during the period. However his work does touch on many issues still relevant today, such as the role of religion in politics, the interests of state and local government, the mobilization of the public opinion to enact change, and distrust of physicians.

To quote another reviewer on LT - "Unfortunately, as a weakness, Rosenberg is very repetitive. A lot of information and points are stressed repeatedly throughout the book, and in that way it sort of losses focus a few times. - morbidromantic | Nov 21, 2009."

Utilizing more complete quotes from the newspapers and other sources might have allowed the author to emphasize key points in a more interesting manner, rather than his repetitive style of paraphrasing. Such as the following from "J.L.G." Boston Investigator, August 01, 1849, "They can't clean the cellars, and the lanes-visit the hovels of the poor, the destitute, the widow, and the orphan, especially if they are sick; and more especially if they are vicious, and their sickness is the cholera. But they must do something, and what can they do but pray? This is easy. It neither soils their fine clothes, blisters their soft hands, offends their nostrils by noisome smells, nor shocks their fine sensibilities by witnessing constant instances of misery, sickness, destitution, and death." [p124]

This work could be the basis of a compelling narrative history. ( )
  MichaelC.Oliveira | Aug 27, 2012 |
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 changes in our society.
“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. Rosenberg attributes this to the medical communities inability to cope with epidemics, the 1832 outbreak of cholera in particular. In fact Galenic physician's had never been effective. I was left wondering what was it that changed between 1832 and 1848 that made their ineffectiveness unacceptable?

Perhaps that is what makes this such a good work of history. It reveals truths while at the same time uncovering new questions. Originally published in 1962 Rosenberg’s book is still readable and relevant and I recommend it to anyone interested in 19th century American history. ( )
  TLCrawford | Mar 16, 2012 |
In the Republic era of America, people were assaulted daily by their own visions of success, failure, the expectations and weaknesses of a still developing concept of democracy, poverty, and illness. One such illness, Cholera, infected America three times during this period: 1832, 1849, and 1866. In America, “Cholera represented a constant and randomly reoccurring stimulus against which the varying reactions and systems of Americans could be judged”, and it caused gradual changes in social attitudes, government, religious thought, and medicine as people tried to understand and cope with the disease. Historians have recently given little attention to defining and then writing about the social changes brought about by cholera, both as a process and its final result. It is part of history’s recent interest in social aspects such as family and school, which medicine is a part of because the two are linked by every day life concerns.

The Cholera Years is an interesting and easy to read book. One of its strengths lies in its readability and in how it engages the reader through primary sources. Historical books that tell stories and relate true life accounts and words are more interesting than those that simply move from one fact to the next. Also, Rosenberg is very organized in his presentation of information. The sections, chopped up by cholera year, follow the same patterns as far as how information is addressed. As a result, though we are reading from one year to the next, the progressions of society and thought are easy to follow and connect together. It actually made more sense this way than if Rosenberg had approached the book topically, which would have jumped around and only confused. Unfortunately, as a weakness, Rosenberg is very repetitive. A lot of information and points are stressed repeatedly throughout the book, and in that way it sort of losses focus a few times.

Rosenberg gives an annotated bibliography at the end of his book, which lists aids, manuscripts, public documents, newspapers, printed medical documents, other printed material, and secondary sources consulted. He does make note in his section on printed material other than medical literature that he has not listed all the documents consulted because they are too numerous, but instead listed those that are most interesting or relevant, which he also does with newspapers. The primary sources include such documents as hospital reports, newspapers, Board of Health and committee minutes, and religious sermons. As such, we are provided with a lot of “from the mouth” accounts of cholera to support the progressions in thought and practice that Rosenberg takes us through from one outbreak to the next.

This book fits well into the genre of medical history, as well as cultural history because Cholera had a direct and distinct impact on life, the concept of a person, social equality, and medical care. You won’t get the sort of copious gory details that medical history books are known for, which is a shame, but you will certainly come out of reading the book understanding a bit more how America evolved into the country it is now, and how something like one disease could shape a nation. ( )
1 vote morbidromantic | Nov 21, 2009 |
Quite a good study of early public health efforts to combat cholera. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Jan 19, 2006 |
Excellent narrative of the cholera epidemics during the mid-19the century. ( )
  Aetatis | Dec 10, 2005 |
Showing 5 of 5
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It had been an unhealthy winter and the dry spring promised a sickly summer.
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A disease is no absolute physical entity but a complex intellectual construct, an amalgam of biological state and social definition. The reactions of Americans to cholera changed between 1832 and 1849, between 1849 and 1866, this is unquestionable. My task has been to understand something of the factors which enabled Americans to perceive this old phenomenon in a new way. [author's footnote p5]
The state was not a limited liability corporation; every American was morally responsible for its actions. Not that Americans were not culpable as individuals. Intemperance, Sabbath-breaking, and infidelity were prevalent enough, sermons accused, to provoke a judgement far hasher than cholera. [p126]
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Cholera was the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century, as the plague had been for the fourteenth. Its defeat was a reflection not only of progress in medical knowledge but of enduring changes in American social thought. Rosenberg has focused his study on New York City, the most highly developed center of this new society. Carefully documented, full of descriptive detail, yet written with an urgent sense of the drama of the epidemic years, this narrative is as absorbing for general audiences as it is for the medical historian. In a new Afterword, Rosenberg discusses changes in historical method and concerns since the original publication of The Cholera Years. "A major work of interpretation of medical and social thought . . . this volume is also to be commended for its skillful, absorbing presentation of the background and the effects of this dread disease."--I.B. Cohen, New York Times "The Cholera Years is a masterful analysis of the moral and social interest attached to epidemic disease, providing generally applicable insights into how the connections between social change, changes in knowledge and changes in technical practice may be conceived."--Steven Shapin, Times Literary Supplement "In a way that is all too rarely done, Rosenberg has skillfully interwoven medical, social, and intellectual history to show how medicine and society interacted and changed during the 19th century. The history of medicine here takes its rightful place in the tapestry of human history."--John B. Blake, Science

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