‘Epidemics in a Mist’: Medical Climatology and Cholera in Victorian Visual Culture

Sciampacone, Amanda (2020). ‘Epidemics in a Mist’: Medical Climatology and Cholera in Victorian Visual Culture. Journal of Victorian Culture, 25(4) pp. 492–511.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jvcult/vcaa020

Abstract

The article explores how Victorian visual culture was a vital force in the construction and dissemination of medical theories on the connection between climate and health. During the nineteenth century, the seemingly inexplicable and deadly nature of many epidemic diseases compelled British medics to investigate all possible reasons for their spread. Focusing on cholera, the article will examine how, in an effort to understand what was seen at the time as a mysterious disease, Victorian medics increasingly concentrated on the climate of India and unusual weather in Britain as propagators of the malady. Supplementing the dominant miasma theory, medics explained how the seemingly airborne sources of cholera resulted from a state of England’s air that resembled the tropical environment of the subcontinent. In an effort to highlight the correlation between cholera and the atmosphere, they produced medical climatology reports containing diagrams that juxtaposed the data on the disease’s mortality rates with measurements of meteorological phenomena. These images, rather than serving simply as illustrations, became a crucial part of medical arguments. As the article will demonstrate, in attempting to visualize the medical climatology of cholera, the diagrams mapped the disease to certain atmospheric conditions, suggesting that cholera could be quantified and controlled. Yet, in doing so, the images also implied that cholera had a real material presence in the air of Britain, powerfully evoking visual tropes of the disease as a substance that had the potential to contaminate the very landscape of the nation.

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