Author Archives: Nivedita Rajan

Victorian Diseases and their Impact on Society

Group 3

The Victorian era saw an increased spread of infectious diseases, especially in large cities where the rate of infection increased exponentially. This era also saw the rise of the medical sciences with respect to the development of cures, preventive methods, and vaccinations, such as the one discovered by Edward Jenner that was used to eradicate smallpox. The advent of infectious diseases in populous areas led to a reexamination of the diagnostic methods of diseases, which led to medical professionals being able to pinpoint more accurately the causes and origins of every disease. The issues of poor sanitation and public health were highlighted as being some of the main causes for the spread of infection. Though people were aware that diseases existed in regions where the air was putrid, they did not make the connection that depicted the matter of improper sanitation as being a problematic issue that gave rise to higher numbers of people falling ill.

During this time period, smallpox was in its prime, and was one of the most frightening diseases in terms of infection rate. It was extremely contagious and had a death rate of about thirty percent, which would devastate cities such as London. But what makes it so interesting from a literary standpoint is its aftereffects, primarily how it could leave people scarred, or even blind; the physical damage caused by the disease was far more obvious than in other diseases. As such, smallpox can be used to represent the internal battles of the characters in a simple yet incredibly effective way. Characters can succumb to the disease and therefore lose their internal battle and die, or, like Esther, they can survive it. Those who were affected by the disease were left with disfiguring pockmarks, which act as battle scars to show that they were stronger than whatever tried to defeat them, whether it was smallpox or their own inner demons. The obvious physical scarring brought about by smallpox was most likely the reason that Dickens used this disease in Bleak House rather than any of the other prevalent diseases at the time; physical ‘war wounds’ created more of an impact on both characters and readers. Another disease that was prevalent during this era was typhus, the origins of which extend all the way back to the Spanish siege in 1489. Though not yet termed typhus, the description of the symptoms matches the symptoms of what we would now call typhus today (i.e. rash, sores, delirium etc.). Later on, it became especially common in English prisons where prisoners were forced into tight living quarters with each other, often in disease-ridden conditions. This led to an easy transmission rate of typhus, and supposedly led to the death of 25% of English prisoners.

However, arguably the disease with the most impact during this time period was cholera. Although the sheer numbers of people affected by cholera was lower than that of other epidemics, the social implications of the disease impacted the nineteenth century in ways that could not be debated. An article by Richard J. Evans asserts that “cholera has a good claim to be regarded as the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century”. Cholera spread through poor nineteenth century sanitation, and produced uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, symptoms that Evans describes as “violent affronts to Victorian prudery” (127). Half of all sufferers died from cholera, and it could take as little as twelve hours between the first appearance of symptoms and death. Evans also asserts that the disease clearly affected the poor more than the rich, and therefore acted as a device to reveal areas of great poverty and poor sanitation in the large cities. The cholera epidemic was significant in that while the wealthy could escape relatively unscathed, the poor seemed doomed to perish, and therefore “it’s power to exacerbate existing social tensions would be very considerable” (Evans 131).

The more these diseases infected the general population, the more number of people were attempting to combat them. Medical professionals came to the forefront of the battle against infectious diseases; people such as Florence Nightingale, who acted as a leading figure in medicine during the Crimean War (1853-56), were tasked with finding preventive and curative measures for each disease. Interestingly enough, those who outlined the Poor Laws were also involved with finding the causes and methods for treating diseases such as typhus. A man by the name of Edwin Chadwick was directly involved with this task due to his interest in sanitation and hygiene in England. Ironically, Dickens and Chadwick seemed to have had a fairly friendly relationship that was based on mutual interests like their concerns for the public health of England. Though it seems odd that the two would have gotten along, Dickens probably saw the friendship as an opportunity to further his efforts for the poor in a bigger way.


Works Cited:

Evans, Richard J. “Epidemics And Revolutions: Cholera In Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Past and Present 120.1 (1988): 123-46. Web


Blog post written by: Max Garnaat, Alyssa Knott, McKenna Miller, Hannah Sugarman, and Nivedita Rajan

Discussion Question: What is Dickens implying about society through his representation of disease in Bleak House?