Beyond the Broad Street Pump: Colonialism and Medical Practice in Cape Verde and the Caribbean in the 19th Century

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
Jim Downs, Connecticut College
The history of epidemiology has often been told as a story that originated in mid- nineteenth-century London when Dr. John Snow first tracked the origins of cholera to a water pump.  Snow mapped how cholera moved across a neighborhood in London and in so doing developed a theory of disease transmission.  While the medical community eventually embraced Snow’s argument, in order for his theory to be widely adopted by the medical and scientific community, it needed more proof.  

As my paper argues the outbreak of cholera throughout the Caribbean and Cape Verde provided an important source of proof to substantiate Snow’s findings and further buttress the nascent field of epidemiology.  The outbreak of cholera among newly freed slaves in the Caribbean and among colonized people in Cape Verde allowed British and Portuguese doctors with a large sample set to test Snow’s theories.  Studying epidemics required a large mass of people as well as a broad geographic terrain in order to map the progress of the bacteria. The Caribbean and Cape Verde provided both the people and the place.  Imperial physicians, mostly deployed by the military, reported on the cholera outbreak, recorded copious notes about its behavior, and documented its symptoms among infected populations. The discourse invariably substantiated Snow’s findings and in so doing contributed to a more global understanding of epidemiology. Building on research at both the British National Archives and the Wellcome Institute for Medicine, my paper thus reveals how the advancement of modern epidemiology can be traced to Cape Verde and the Caribbean.

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