Cholera: A Panoply of Useless Remedies

Without a thorough understanding of how the disease worked, treating cholera and preventing its spread proved extremely difficult. Treatments were ineffective at best or actively harmful at their worst. If the cholera didn’t kill you, then a visit to the doctor just might. Still, with no better remedies at their disposal, desperate people were driven to a market over-saturated with cures from quacks and doctors alike. 

Cholera Preventive Costume, (1832), Publisher: Thomas McLean, Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

The caption below the image reads:

He who would defend himself from the Contagious Cholera must be dressed in the following manner. The Bust to be entirely covered with India rubber, on which apply a large Pitch Plaster, and cover the whole with a Flannel six Yards long. Put a Copper-Plate on the Pit of the Stomach and on the Breast a Bag of warm sand. Around the neck place a double band filled with Pepper & Juniper berries. Fill the Ears with Cotton impregnated with Camphire. Suspend to the nose a large vial of concentrated vinegar and adjust a Branch of acorns before the mouth. Over the band which surrounds the Body a Shirt saturated with chloruret of Lime, a cotton waistcoat, & a Jacket impregnated also with chloruret of Lime. Flannel trousers, thread stockings dipped in vinegar, over which another pair of worsted, rubbed with camphire. Hollow brass sole, constantly filled with warm water, and strong shoes. Behind the Calves should be suspended two little Pitchers full of water. He must wear besides a great coat, a worsted gown, and cover the whole with a large cloak of oil cloth; a hat of the same stuff, and the face to be covered with a paste mask. In the right great coat pocket gown a pound of perfumed tea and half a pound of felwort root. In the left pocket a pound of coriander root, and half a pound of sage leaf. In the jacket pocket a vial of essence of camomile, and in the fob a vial of camphorated ether. In the crown of the hat a basin of soup, in the right hand a bush of juniper tree, and in the left an acacia tree. He must drag after him a cart containing fifteen yards of flannel, the necessary apparatus for vapour baths, ten friction brushes, two furred robes & a close stool. By exactly following these directions you may be certain that the Cholera… will attack you the first. 

This satirical print pokes fun at the surplus of preventative measures marketed to ward off cholera, many of them recommended by the government instituted, doctor led, Local Boards of Health.

Backed by the popular belief that cold air, especially night air, made one susceptible to disease, the public was instructed to dress warmly to ward off chills. A common treatment for cholera patients included wrapping the afflicted in hot blankets, warming them with bags of hot salt or bran, and placing flannels (especially camphorated ones) upon the stomach and the extremities. Broadsheets advised the following:

If you get wet, change your clothes as soon as you can; warm and dry clothing, however homely or coarse, will do much to keep off Cholera. Flannel should be worn next the skin round the body, and the feet be kept dry and warm with worsted stockings.

The print takes this advice to its logical extremes, and the encumbered man wears multiple layers and carries a hefty weight of warming agents. 

Many of the other preventatives work off of the miasmatic theory, which holds “all smell is disease.” The man wears multiple items that have been soaked in chemicals or pungent liquids. The chloruret of Lime one should soak their clothes in, is an antiquated term for chlorinated lime, more commonly known as bleaching powder. While useful as a disinfectant, it would have certainly proved an irritant to the skin, lungs, and eyes. Vinegar would have been less harmful, but certainly unpleasant to smell as well as ultimately ineffective. They believed that these chemicals and aromatic herbs warded off or attacked the miasma, thus purifying the air one breathed and preventing disease. 

Again, these curatives were derived from actual medical advice disseminated to the public. Informational broadsheets instructed the following:

apply a vinegar-and-mustard poultice over the whole belly, as long as it can be borne…

let the arms, feet, and legs be constantly rubbed with flannels dipped in hot vinegar

Despite the number of preventatives the man carries and wears, he pulls a cart with extra warming agents-flannels and robes, items for bathing (another miasmatic preventative) and a portable toilet called a close stool. The presence of the extra supplies and the toilet implies that even with the excessive amount of preventatives he wears, cholera may still strike him, proving these aids pointless. 

Two copyright cholera belt inventions registered with the UK’s Designs Registry circa 19th-century. (Courtesy of the National Archives UK).

Cholera belts, like the two pictured above, most likely inspired the cholera outfit prints pictured throughout this post. British soldiers were ordered to wear flannel cholera belts as part of their uniforms, especially when occupying tropical areas. Doctors and public officials likewise advised English civilians to wear flannel belts as a preventative against the epidemic back home. For further reading on the topic see E.T. Renbourn’s paper, “The History of the Flannel Binder and Cholera Belt.”

 The cartoonist lambasts the saturated market of cholera preventatives and remedies as overwhelmingly useless and even potentially harmful. If one couldn’t assure their safety from the epidemic, they could at least assure they look a fool when they finally perished from it. 

Johann Benedikt Wunder, Cholera Praeservativmann, (1832), Courtesy of Wellcome Collection

Wunder’s piece shows a similarly bundled man taking shelter underneath an arc constructed of various cholera remedies, while the haunting figure of Cholera lurks behind him–ready to strike at any moment. The boxes surrounding him bear the names of several rubefacients such as camphire, coriander, peppermint, and mustard. These are topical substances that cause, when rubbed into the skin, the capillaries to dilate and an increase in blood circulation. Warmth and stimulation of the limbs were believed to ward off death and disease and was believed to be especially beneficial to restoring warmth to a declining cholera patient’s skin. 

In the lower right-hand corner, we see a clyster for employing enemas lying on top of a box of salts. Enemas were considered a cure-all and a part of a healthy conventional practice. A common belief among doctors was that “death begins in the colon.” In the Victorian Era, the theory of intestinal autointoxication was quite popular. The theory that microbes in the digestive system were responsible for the putrefaction of feces. If not purged, the decays would introduce toxins into the blood, thereby poisoning the rest of the body. For the upper class, a daily enema applied in the morning before dressing was considered a healthy habit. Enemas were often used to treat cholera, often mixed with salts and potentially more bizarre liquids such as chicken broth, following the similar belief of flushing out toxins. 

Higher up on the wall hangs tobacco pipes, another common treatment for ailments, including cholera. Usually, the tobacco was applied in the form of a tobacco smoke enema, where using a special apparatus, smoke was blown directly into the rectum. Of course, this meant the person applying the enema was putting themself at high risk of inhaling the infected fecal matter and unintentionally furthering spread. 

The gallery below shows a number of additional prints depicting ludicrous cholera outfits.

Brandy was another widely accepted panacea, usually taken as a stimulative. It was believed to combat heat loss and was often taken heated. Hot brandy mixed with a number of other liquids were popular treatments for cholera. It wasn’t always taken orally, however, as brandy was also used as an enema solution in the latter stages of cholera. 

Robert Seymour, Fortifying Against the Cholera, (1831), Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine

At the same time, many members of the temperance movement strongly protested the use of brandy as a medicinal restorative, demonizing it as a cause for illness. Those who already drank were warned not to indulge further:

Brandy is certainly most valuable in Cholera to those who have not been in the habit of spirit-drinking: those who have constantly taken it, derive little or no good from it.

Others advised avoiding brandy at all costs, believing it made one a more likely target for the disease.

Live plainly, and avoid all excesses… Drunkenness and late hours are great friends of the Cholera. 

This final print by Robert Cruikshank shows the plight of the cholera patient in a considerably less humorous light. The gaunt figure of the ailing patient stars agonized as the litany of remedies he has taken have proven useless, and he quickly starves to death. Note the blue tint to his skin, reminiscent of a cholera corpse, implying death is close at hand. 

 Upon his table lie two remedies: an emetic and Blue Pills. An emetic is a medicinal substance that induces vomiting; another widely used purgative agent in Victorian medicine. This would have proven no help to the quickly declining cholera patient as it would only speed the rate of their dehydration. Additionally, the constant vomiting would reintroduce the cholera bacterium into the environment, putting others at risk of contracting the disease. Blue Pills, also called Blue Mass, was a mercury-based medicine used for a variety of complaints, including cholera. Its name derives from the coloring of the pills or syrup. Depending on the pharmacist, the coloring was the result of blue dye  added to make the product look distinctive or blue chalk, a buffering agent to combat mercury chloride’s purgative effects. Unbeknownst to the medical community at the time, Mercury is extremely toxic and its ingestion leads to heavy-metal poisoning. Worse still, a common dose of Blue Mass, taken 2 to 3 times a day, was found to be about 80 to 120 times the world Health Organization’s acceptable daily intake.


Dispensing pot of Blue Pills, From the London Science Museum, (1880-1930), Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

These dangerous and useless remedies lie upon a table constructed out of a human skeleton which bears the phrase Fee Fo Fum: the same infamous rhyme bellowed by the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. This is meant to implicate the Board of Health doctors in profiting off the misery and death. This was a popular rumor during the cholera epidemic in England and a topic that generated its own host of political cartoons. This topic will explored further in an upcoming post in the cholera series.