Rosenberg's 1866 Cholera Epidemic Analysis

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Charles Rosenberg argues that by 1866, moralistic concepts of disease had faded and “scientific values and habits of thought” (Rosenberg 232) gained prevalence. While this is true of the 1866 cholera epidemic, it does not accurately predict the future development of the conception of disease. Although scientific thought steadily increased in prominence, moral judgements rose once again with the advent of germ theory. This essay investigates the context surrounding Rosenberg’s statement, comparing it to Terence Powderly’s 1902 warning of “the menace to the nation’s health of the new immigrants” (Powderly, 1902). It first argues that the post-civil war environment facilitated the waning of religious and moral judgments as the basis for the…show more content…
Having just experienced a civil war, Americans in 1866 were primed to look for non-moral causes of disease since the morality of all of the United States seemed to be in question. By organizing an effective Board of Health, Americans in this time period were also able to quell the 1866 cholera outbreak. Had the Board of Health failed to control the outbreak like in 1832 and 1849, skepticism surrounding new scientific thought would have likely continued. In Powderly’s time, however, there was a new wave of immigrants coming to America and germ theory was well accepted, yet incomplete. Consequently, Powderly’s warning is a rather moral one. Immigrants are “alien criminal[s], pauper[s], anarchist[s], and contract laborer[s]” (Powderly, 1902) and susceptible to vices. The moral association between immigrants and health is prominent. This is not the result of a fading moral construction of disease, it is a heightened sense of moral superiority by Americans over non-Americans, something that had faded more in the late 1860’s. What does this say about America? Perhaps we more likely to use moral judgements against outsiders than against our own. When we fight against our own, however, we may be more forgiving to foreigners. Context is invaluable in identifying the true causes of disease and understanding the changes in perception of disease over

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