Source 2

letter sent to the Central Board of Health, during the first cholera outbreak from a surgeon in Devon, 17 February 1832, Catalogue ref: HO 44/25.


17th February 1832 

My Lord, 

Seeing by the daily papers that the Cholera Morbus [disease] has made its appearance in London I am induced to offer with submission what appears to me a ready a ready and easy means of preventing this dreadful destruction which inevitably follow the spreading of that disease in so populous a place as London. I am persuaded that nothing would destroy malaria equal to the combustion [setting fire] of gunpowder from large pieces of ordnance [weapons] on the principal that it would produce a general rarefaction of the atmosphere [make the air less dense] and fill the element with vital air. 

The plan I would recommend would be to have a certain quantity of gunpowder enclosed in packages of some animal substance or canvas bags first saturated with alum water[water containing salts to make the fabric fireproof] to prevent any accident of fire. The package to be thrown from a mortar to ignite in the air. The experiment can easily be tried at Greenwich, the Tower, Temple Garden, Chelsea. The expense will be very trifling and I have no doubt the result would be satisfactory. 

I would further recommend gunpowder moistened with water and formed into pastils [pellets] of small size which may be ignited daily in houses of infected neighbourhoods where every inmate maybe fumigated [disinfected/made pure with chemicals]. Every man knows who has been in the habit of shooting that not only his clothes are impregnated with the gas but it passes through every channel of his body and my opinion is that it offers as good as prevention against contagion as anything yet known. An infant may inhale it.  

I have taken the liberty of throwing out these hints at the suggestion of the moment, trusting however for the benefit of mankind that the effects of it will be put to the trial as it is deplorable to reflect in what degree the inhabitants of London must suffer from the consequences such a disease must produce should it increase. 

I have the honour to remain, my Lord, your obedient, humble servant, Thomas Calley, Surgeon 

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This is an example of many proposed cures for a disease that few in the medical profession understood and reveals the predominance of miasma theory. 

  1. How does this writer suggest that the air over London could be improved to reduce cholera? 
  2. Why do you think he makes this suggestion? 
  3. The writer also argues that infected households should be given a small amount of gunpowder to light in their homes. What was the purpose of this? 
  4. What are the dangers linked to these ideas to prevent cholera? 
  5. Does the tone or language used in the letter reveal anything about how the disease was viewed at the time?