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Miasmas (and "Hills" of Shit)


In 1849, yellow fever struck a handful of port cities in Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro.  This caused agony among Brazil's governing elite because up to this point, most disputed that yellow fever existed in the Empire.  Furthermore, Brazilians believed that their climate was so good that the kinds of epidemics such as influenza, cholera, and bubonic plague that had killed millions throughout the world during the first half of the 1800s, could never enter Brazil.  Yellow fever returned in 1850, 1851 and 1852, causing Brazilian health officials and doctors to worry that this terrible malady had taken permanent root in the country. 

Responding to these worries, the president of the Health Board of Rio de Janeiro (Junta Central da Hygiene Publica), Francisco de Paula Candido, wrote a report that the government annexed to the widely read and distributed annual report of the Ministry of the Empire.  Dr. Candido believed that something had changed in the air to cause the new disease environment, and he wasn't too far off since it was hordes of mosquitoes that carried and spread yellow fever.  But instead of insects he and many others thought it was miasmas and gasses that eminated from organic decomposition and other pollutions, like human and animal fecal material. 

Since the colonial period, households were obligated to dump their excrement and garbage into the sea or on the beaches, but many chose not to follow this rule and instead threw their wastes into backyards, streets, and empty lots.  In addition, Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian towns and cities were filled with millions of pack animals, pigs, chickens and dairy cows.  Mixed with human waste, this matter was piled on tall deposits (called "hills").  The city had no organized system for waste removal so the excrement and garbage were piled higher and higher until enough complaints mounted that the city government removed the object of complaint, leaving the others behind.  Brazil was far from alone in these practices; European and American cities were also notorious for their noxious smells and ubiquity of excrement.

In the section displayed below, Dr. Candido offers his estimate that animals and people excreted around 14.8 million pounds (7400 tons) of waste each year in Rio de Janeiro alone.  And this did not count the "liquid portion" of excrement!  Here is the report that carried this extraordinary discussion and statistic.


The Cholera Epidemic of 1855-56

Here is the movement of the first terrible cholera epidemic in Brazil as it spread in 1855 and 1856.  This is the first map of its kind for Brazil and up to now, no one has given us a full picture of where cholera struck and how fast it spread [red indicates confirmed areas of disease presence, red lines indicate sporadic cases, red points are areas where cholera was probably infecting people, but this was not confirmed by the presidential reports]. In the handful of regional studies of this epidemic or references to the disease in Brazilian history, it is easy to get the impression that it infected Brazilians throughout the country during these years. This was not the case, as these illustrations make clear. There were some other discoveries that I will discuss in more detail when I write this chapter: 1) rivers facilitated the spread of cholera; 2) it did not cross mountain ranges; 3) it always struck larger urban population centers on the coast before spreading inward; and 4) the Brazilian North and Northeast were affected much more than the southern and south-central parts of Brazil. One of my goals is to measure the economic consequences of epidemics and disease like cholera, and I have an unproven hunch that the Northeast suffered in economic terms much more from these disasters than other regions.  A set of larger (.pdf) maps are available here.


Medicinal Leeches

I came across another unusual advertisement in the Journal do Commercio (June, 1863) yesterday. This is an ad for "monstrous" leeches, which were considered by many up to the late nineteenth century to have medicinal value. They were applied to extract "bad blood" and balance the humors. What I did not know is the enormous variety of leeches that could be purchased.  Apparently, different ailments and pains called for the application of particular kinds of leeches. For example, "Anel iman" (sp?) leeches were used for discomfort of the nerves (dôres nervosas) or "Colares Electricos" were used to treat children's tooth aches.  Wikipedia has more to say about Hirudotherapy, including its revival.


Cholera in Alagoas, 1855-1856

The following images show the spread of cholera in the northeastern province of Alagoas between 1855 and 1856.  The solid red are areas where the provincial authorities reported outbreaks.  The light red lines indicate cholera that was on the decline or was infecting sporadically.  The first picture is from November 1855, with each following picture representing the subsequent month until April 1856.

This was my first "beta" run on mapping diseases using ESRI's ArcGIS.   What you see here I plan to replicate for cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, and bubonic plague for every province in the Empire.






New Features to EE Website

I've added two features recently.  First, I've added dictionaries to the source gallery.  This gallery is a little different than the others because all of the sources listed there are available and can be downloaded.  For example, Google Books recently digitalized Antonio Vieyra's dictionary, published in 1827, which is one of the best tools for translating nineteenth-century Portuguese.  If you commonly translate Portuguese terms from this century, I highly recommend this book.  There are also two medical dictionaries.  Second, I've added a new page called "place names."  Over the next few weeks I will be building a database that contains the names of most cities, towns, villages, rivers and mountain ranges that existed in the Brazilian Empire.  With the help of an embedded Google Doc "gadget," I have made it possible to search and filter place names so as to locate them within the Empire.  This page will also have between 100 and 200 maps of individual provincial districts (comarcas), taken from Candido Mendes de Almeida's Atlas do Imperio do Brasil (1868).  I will use this web tool as I continue to identify the geographical extent of diseases.  I hope others will find it useful as well.



Google's Newspaper Archive

Google has expanded its search capabilities by bringing newspapers into their "portfolio" of material.  At this point, they are depending on other newspaper archives to deliver the material but it appears they have some newspapers digitalized in a format similar to Google Books.  For example, a search on "Brazil and Cholera" brings up about 5380 hits.  These can be organized on a timeline:

Each portion of this timeline can be clicked to bring up the articles for those two decades.   Most of the articles for my research are stored in three databases:  1) the New York Times newspaper archive, 2) Cornell's Making of America collection; or 3) NewspaperARCHIVE.  I had used the NYT archive before, but I was not familiar with the Cornell University site or the  Cornell's site is impressively large; for example, they have a long run of 19th century Harper's, with all of their fabulous illustrations.  NewspaperARCHIVE promotes itself as "the largest historical newspaper database online," with "tens of millions of newspaper pages from 1759 to present."  It also charges, as far as I can tell, a 13 buck monthly fee for accessing its articles.



Cholera, Gastroenteritis and Rainfall

This illustration shows the deadliest disease in Rio de Janeiro during the second half of 1855.  Cholera became a frightning epidemic in Brazil this year, and it did not spare the Imperial capital.   This graph compares the number of daily burials (as reported by the cemetery to Rio's main newspaper) to rainfall over time.  The shaded areas represent the number of cholera and gastroenteritis victims, and the total number of burials.  Because of cholera, the burial rate within the city was triple or quadruple the normal rate.   Many must have worried that they, their spouses, or children would die from this unknown and amazingly rapid illness.  Victims sometimes died in enormous pain only hours after their first symptoms appeared.  Besides showing the elevated rate of burials, this illustration gives us a few more clues:

1) Notice that gastroenteritis increases until it abruptly ends in early September.  About the same time that gastroenteritis almost vanishes, cholera picks up.  Doctors today classify cholera as a type of gastroenteritis, but the bacterium (Vibrio cholerae) that causes cholera acts in a very different way than the two viruses (norovirus and rotavirus) that cause the majority of gastroenteritis illnesses. Thus, at first, the diseases within this category were confused.  Politics may have played a role since a confirmed epidemic would have lead to panic and loss of commerce.

2) There is a period of heavy rainfall during the first two weeks of the epidemic.  Since cholera is mostly spread by water contaminated by fecal material, there might be a connection between heavy rainfall and incidence of disease.  I don't believe this offers proof necessarily, but it gives me enough to want to explore it further.

3) Finally, the number of deaths caused by diseases other than cholera do not decline during the outbreak.  Perhaps cholera was not striking the weak, young, or old, and these three groups remained prone to the "normal" array of afflictions.  I need to back this up with more evidence as well.

I need to add the last two months of this disease and look at numbers from other places where and times when cholera struck.  The main goal, of course, is to find patterns that can be attributed to the disease across time and place.  But if it shows unique patterns in different places and times, this is an interesting finding as well.  I might also be able to use the partial address information within this burial information to map cholera's spread within the confines of the city.

Here is an example of that methodology applied to yellow fever in Rio de Janeiro by Zephyr Frank.

[please note that all of this material, including these illustrations, is under copywrite.  Cite with only my permission, please]


Orthotics and Prosthetics

I came across this advertisement by accident in the Jornal do Commercio (Rio de Janeiro), printed in August, 1855.  This shop sells prosthetic limbs and orthotic devises for people with disabilities.  The advertisement, which is almost too faded to read, says that "In our house you will always find a great assortment of tools of the highest quality for all personal defects, of both sexes and all ages:  a great variety of elastic socks of high quality [...], elastic belts for the belly, suspenders for the testicles, artificial leaches..."


Robin Anderson

Robin Anderson, who teaches in the History Department at Arkansas State University, was one of the first to systematically explore the health of Brazilians living before the twenthieth-century.  In 1986, she published an article in the Journal of the History of Medicine titled "Public Health and Public Healthiness, São Paulo, Brazil, 1876-1893."  In it she argues that disease rates in São Paulo "became substantially worse" during the period of her study.    Furthermore, all of Brazil suffered "a heavy blow" to its image as "a relatively healthful country" because of the unusual epidemics of yellow fever and cholera.  Her study rested on a large database of 15,000 buried bodies in the São Paulo municipal cemetery.  She found that these rare records had been reprinted in São Paulo's biggest (and still active) newspaper, O Estado, and this opened the door for a nicely done statistical analysis of the propensity of the Paulista population to certain diseases by age, sex, birthplace, and to a limited degree, legal condition (free or enslaved). 

Recently, Robin told me that it was a "delight to hear that someone is finally getting interested in the medical history of Brazil."  I am happy to have her encouragement, and I also share her feeling that this is a topic that too few people have studied.  Historians have long acknowledged the impact that epidemics and worsening health conditions had on politics and society during the late Imperial and early Republican periods, but we still know very little about when and where these epidemics and other diseases struck outside of the big cities such as Rio de Janeiro or Salvador.  Even for these big cities, we still cannot list the top causes of death, illness, recovery rates, medical practices, or common perceptions of the terrifying epidemics or the sadly common endemic diseases.  Clearly, a lot of work remains to be done.

Robin recommended the resources at the National Library of Medicine in Bethusda, Maryland, and this useful website on "archaic, and arcane, medical terms that up in in this data":

Robin has broadened her interests since studying Brazilian history but remains in the field of the history of Medicine.  She is still hard at work.  Recently, she collected a great range of primary and secondary sources on the history of medicine and published them in an accessable book called Sources in the History of Medicine:  The Impact of Disease and Trauma (Pearson, 2006).  You can find it at Amazon here or Barnes and Noble here.


Place name map links

Its a childcare day so I'm doing work that can be interrupted.  This includes some web work and clean up.  The site is looking better.

I added a bunch of hyperlinks to most of the place names I could find on the website, mainly in the Source Gallery pages (for an example, see the posting below).  These links will bring you to a Google terrain map of each place.  I'm working on having these links open a different window or tab but this requires some html coding.


Page Banners are finished

This is a little graphic touch that I think adds to the site.  I have in mind to add one more page along the lines of "Questions" or "History."  In it I will go into detail into some of the databases I am using to answer specific questions.  I need to think about this for a few days more.  If I put up too much on this site, there will be few surprises when the book comes, right?

I have been working recently on the cholera epidemic that struck much of Brazil in 1855.  My current sources deal with Rio de Janeiro.  Besides trying to find out what kinds of people cholera most often killed, I am also going to attempt to find out if weather patterns (I have daily reports) made a difference.  Cholera was most likely to be spread by contaminated drinking water so I have a hunch that heavy rains or stretches of dry weather may have made a difference in cholera's etiological environment.  I am also looking at food consumption and prices in the city (for which I also have daily reports) to see if there were disruptions.  Some have claimed (myself included) that epidemics could make many city residents flee for the countryside, especially the wealthy.  If this was the case, the amount of perishable food being consumed in the city should go down, right?  We'll see.  People may have decided that there was no good place to run because cholera struck many towns and cities near Rio de Janeiro, including a popular retreat of the rich, Petropolis.  I'll post when I know more.



I converted my trial to "Advanced" subscription.  This allows me to put new banners and download up to three gigs of data.  We'll see if I ever fill that quota.  I'm working now on the time-consuming task of graphically designing each individual banner.  I am also noticing some typos as I page through here.  These should be cleaned up soon. 


Work on Source Gallery Continues

I have been able to put up examples of some of the kinds of documents I'm working with.  Please go to the Source Gallery to look at some of these.  My experience with the slide show tool is that it looks great but can be a little slow uploading images. I have about five or six other categories of sources that I still need to put up.  Since I want to give a good description of how these sources can be used (and some of their limitations), this is going a little slower than I had hoped.  I may take a break and explore the map tool.  If it works how I think it does, I should be able to put some contemporary Google maps up of the places that will be highlighted in the Era of Epidemics project.


A New Page on Sources

This afternoon I hope to add a page detailing the sources I am using for this project.  I will also explore how I might put up many of my photos of these sources.  My most recent trip to Brazil yielded over 6000 digitalized images, mostly of cemetery and hospital records.  If I can finish this, I will move on to one of my current database projects, which is organizing information found in the hundreds of Provincial Presidential Reports from the 19th century.  These are available through the Center for Research Libraries here.


Up and running

We're off!  I have to give kudos to squarespace for putting together a great blog publishing kit.  I am no expert in website design and creation so in the past I have turned to the big blog-publishing tools.  Compared to Google's Blogger, this service has better tools and much more flexibility.  After watching their 13 minute overview video and one hour of fiddling, I was able to finish nearly half of the structure and format of this site.  It only took two more hours this morning to get where we are at now. Everything is largely self-explanatory, but there is a great deal of power and flexibility. 

As I explained in my biographical page, there are several purposes to this web journal.  First, I hope it will get my research out to people who might find it useful and interesting.  Second, I hope it will help me stay focused and organized as I move from the exploratory and data collection stage into the document transcription and data analysis stage.  I also know that if I write about what I am doing, even during the days of mindless data entry, and keep a record of those notes, I will be in much better shape when I move into the writing stage next year.  Third, this is a bit of an experiment.  This is the first time I will so openly display research in progress and I will decide at the end if doing so helps the work or is an easy but unnecessary diversion.  So, clearly, I have both communal and selfish reasons to spend time on this.

If you come across this blog and something strikes your interest, please do write a comment or contact me.

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