The battle against epidemics in the 1800’s

With all the hype about today’s epidemic of the Coronavirus I couldn’t help rereading a book written and researched by the schoolchildren of Sora 10 years ago about the fight against epidemics in the 1800’s.  I have translated and extracted some of the more interesting information for your entertainment.

The two big epidemics of the 1800’s were smallpox also known as the ‘Arabian sickness’ and cholera also  known as the ‘Asian sickness. Tuberculosis was the main problem in England, France and Japan. But by the beginning of the 1900’s, with the massive immigration to the colonies, influenza, smallpox cholera and diphtheria were exported also to Australia and New Zealand

By 1833 cholera was rife in Italy and there were two very different ways of dealing with this epidemic.

  1. Isolate the infected area, order quarantine for those from those areas and create hospitals just for those afflicted with the disease. This method wasn’t much appreciated by businesses, both large and small as it affected their profits.  (Sound familiar?)
  2. This method believed the disease was environmental; therefore to fight the disease there was no need to isolate the affected zones, just for the Government to improve sanitation in the area. This sanitation project stopped as the epidemic ceased but the tendency for cholera to recur regularly did little to improve the general sanitary conditions of the poor.

Interestingly the first option was that used by the Regno di Napoli and the second by the Stato Italiano (North Italy) in the process cholera became known as the ‘disease of poverty’.

After containing the disease the biggest problem was the burial of the bodies.  In 1809 when Napoleon conquered Italy he decreed that cemeteries were to be built outside the city limits and ordered the transfer of bodies that had been laid to rest below the floors of the churches to be transferred to the new cemetery locations.  After Napoleon’s defeat in 1819 many communities returned to the old way of placing the dead below the church floor.  During this major epidemic the King ordered that all bodies, whether deceased from cholera or other causes were not to be buried in the church but outside the city limits.  In Naples this involved two locations, Poggioreale and Fontanelle.  Poggioreale is the main cemetery in Naples today but you can read about Fontanelle in English here:

At the end of the outbreak in 1837 there were 29,682 dead in the ‘Regno di Napoli’ and 69,253 dead in Sicily.

In Sora the dead were 3 times the norm for any other year and the town officials kept a log of who became ill, who was cured and who died.  This log can be searched in the Sora Archives.




In 1865 the Health Department of Sora, declared the following procedures for dealing with an epidemic.

  • Moderate use of food and drink.
  • Ensure cleanliness of home, clothing and persons
  • Suspend unnecessary and prolonged meetings
  • Stay away from any kind of stressful encounter
  • In case of sickness
  • Sanitize any place where the sick were being cared for
  • Burn their personal possessions
  • Burn any object used in their care
  • Disinfect the method of transport to the cemetery

In addition the Mayor begged the more affluent and generous citizens to donate necessities to the poor and afflicted.

In 1887, after another outbreak of cholera in Sora the Mayor ordered the construction of latrines in homes that lacked them and nominated three citizens to form a committee to assist those afflicted with cholera.  As a result of these actions it was said that the 25th September 1887 cholera was defeated in the City of Sora in the locatlity of San Domenico.     Cholera broke out in Carnello later that year but I guess that didn’t count!

As I read the book and research done by these schoolchildren I realized that not much has changed in 200 years, just the disease we are combatting!




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