Bioterror has gripped Baltimore before

November 15, 2001|By Marilyn Julius

PICTURE POSTAL workers in moonwalk suits nuking tons of letters with an electron beam, the stuff of science fiction until a few weeks ago.

In fact, fumigating the mail is not unprecedented. During the cholera epidemic of 1832, mail was sometimes disinfected with vinegar. Letters were also punctured or flayed, then sealed in a box of smoking aromatic herbs - juniper berry, for instance.

In a recent olfactory survey of documents at the Maryland Historical Society, I detected no lingering trace of vinegar or juniper. But the letters and diaries of Baltimore citizens did reveal parallels to many of the public health issues we confront today.

Cholera - like anthrax, a bacterium - stowed away on ships sailing from Europe in the summer of 1832. Americans in their pristine New World were surprised at its arrival. Weren't we immune? Fevered warnings in American newspapers fueled public concern.

Newspapers that year first reported rumor and tallied the dead in Liverpool, England, and Montreal. Then, as the epidemic closed in, the Baltimore Republican announced, "The angel of death has unsheathed his sword."

Ordinary citizens were as distraught that summer as they have been this fall. Baltimore minister T.H.W. Monroe writes in his journal on Aug. 16, 1832, "Wherever we go, nothing is talked of but the fearful and dreaded cholera. This evening I married a couple, and even there the cholera was the subject of conversation."

Public health officials and politicians vacillated over whether to inform the public and risk panic or withhold bad news and invite censure. A letter written by a local businessman criticizes the Board of Health and Mayor William Stuart for refusing to publish accounts of the disease's spread.

The mayor apparently was reluctant to order quarantine, and although city government favored dispensaries for the poor, it yielded to neighborhood pressures against establishing additional cholera hospitals (NIMBY apparently has a past).

Just as fear of anthrax has taken more of a toll than the disease itself, relatively few people died of cholera compared to malaria, yellow fever or tuberculosis. But the disease aroused exaggerated terror, at least in part because of its lurid symptoms - a profuse emptying of bodily fluids and waste - and the fast chute from health to morbidity, often within hours.

Cholera was considered treatable if detected early but fatal if not. Folk recipes, foolish to us wise post-moderns, included chicken tea enemas and horse dung poultices. Camphor and calomel were the Cipros of the time.

In the spirit of American capitalism, camphor doubled in price during the summer. And just as our antibiotic of choice can cause adverse side effects, so did the purgative calomel. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe may have died of brain damage brought on by his calomel treatments.

The God-fearing folk of Baltimore comforted themselves with the belief that their piety rendered them less vulnerable to this scourge. Vice, poverty, lewdness, filth and intemperance were regarded as cholera's true causes. Baltimore physician and pamphleteer J.E. Snodgrass warned residents against malt liquor: "The ravages of the disease have been mainly confined to those districts crowded with foreigners," he wrote, and "the primary cause has been intoxicating drink." Citizens were advised to mend their ways. We are reminded, perhaps, of Jerry Falwell's recent "God will not be mocked" remark.

Now, 169 years later, we understand the real causes of cholera - open sewers and unclean water. We have seen the bacteria writhing under the microscope. We know that the middle class was less vulnerable to the disease than the poor and foreign-born not because they had escaped the wrath of God but because they had fled the unsanitary real estate of Fells Point or Oldtown to higher and more healthful ground north of the harbor.

We tend to think of historical figures as quaint, perhaps not as savvy and smart as we are. But I wonder what researchers in 2170 will make of our reactions - those of the press, the politicians, the public - to the current anthrax frenzy. Maybe they will think we should have moved to higher ground.

Marilyn Julius teaches English at Villa Julie College in Stevenson and lives in Baltimore.

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