The 19th century was born by celebrating the triumph of the power of steam and ends with the miracles of electricity. But although this new knowledge allowed extracting more resources from the natural environment and the new technologies allowed building majestic pieces of architecture, daring bridges and huge ships, improvements in conditions of individual wellness for the population were only modest.

Nico Zardo

In the 1800s, hygienic conditions in the rapidly and randomly expanding European capitals witnessed several critical periods, so much so that they were defined pestilent cities. “In the first thirty years of the century the population of Greater London almost doubled to 1 1/2 million and in the next twenty years another million were somehow crowded in. With this teeming humanity largely housed by slum landlords, with the laissez-faire philosophy current, and with the apathy towards hygiene at all social levels, the standard of town sanitation sank well below that of the unpiped countryside”1.

In those years, the mortality rate in Great Britain for children under 5 years of age was 24% in the countryside and 48% in the cities!

IN 1832 THE CHOLERA EPIDEMIC STRIKES PARIS AND LONDON. A bacterium originally from India that survives relatively well also outside the human body, in polluted waters, causing tens of thousands of deaths. Although not knowing the true causes, the epidemic was associated with the stench that stemmed from decomposing organic matter typical of the hygienic-sanitary conditions of the first industrial cities (miasma theory).

In 1794 at the University of Paris’ faculty of Medicine, a Hygiene department was created under the direction of by Jean Noël Hallé, “first-physician” to Napoleon and strong vaccine supporter. With the beginning of the 19th century the word hygiene seemed to take on a different meaning: “Hygiene” is no longer just a term to qualify health (hygeinos in Greek means “that which is healthy”), but rather the ensemble of features and knowledge that favor its maintenance and it becomes a special discipline in medicine. It is a body of knowledge, not a qualifying physical term”2.

SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENTS ON ANIMALS – frogs that survive only a few hours after having been wrapped in bags with only their heads protruding – show that correct skin transpiration is foundational for health. Removing dirt that blocks pores by washing with soap and water favors the skin’s respiratory abilities. But after centuries of fear of water as a carrier of disease and of tacit co-habitation with lice, it is difficult to modify behaviors that pouch personal hygiene just slightly beyond the abstract washing of the parts of the body that “show”.

THE FIRST QUARTER OF THE 19TH CENTURY sees abundant theories and studies in support of the healthy qualities of accurate body cleansing, but basically there remains strong distrust on the appropriateness of taking baths. In his Manuel théorique et pratique d’hygiène, (Paris, 1827), J. Morin writes: “Individuals who take baths for no other reason than a whim become weak in parts that should not be, losing tone”. And F. Foy in Manuel d’hygiéne (1844): “An excessive number of baths is unnerving, above all when they are rather hot”3. Further strong diffidence towards the bath stems from the reserve in finding oneself alone with one’s body and the fear that such a situation may induce bad thoughts, so much so that several persons, particularly those in religious structures, bathed with their shirts on.

On the contrary, “in his Reports on An Inquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain of 1842, Edwin Chadwick, fervent supporter of the miasma theory, sustained that improving the sanitary conditions and health of the working class is in the interest of the State, because productivity on the job (fewer absences) would increase and there would also be fewer sick people weighing on the public budget”4.

IN 1854 CHOLERA RETURNS TO TERRORIZE THE POPULATION OF LONDON taking over 10,000 lives. In this period, through the meticulous work of physician John Snow and despite the indifference of many, the direct relationship between a fountain polluted by sewage and the epidemic is found. But only during the “Great Stink” of 1858 will the Parliament of Westminster realize - with the contributing factors of heat, drought and the conditions of the Thames that had become an open-air sewer - the gravity of the situation. In just 18 days, under the threat of unbearable miasmas, it approved the colossal project by engineer Joseph Bazalgette to collect all of London’s raw sewage in one underground network.

Bazalgette’s farsighted work (130 kilometers of piping and 2100 kilometers of sewers!), terminated in 1875, not only distanced cholera from the city (the epidemic of 1866 hit only those areas still not connected to the new system) but thanks to a providential doubling of the size of the pipes retained necessary, made it possible for inhabitants to use a good portion of the original sewer system still today.

The experience of London constituted an example for other European capitals.

“A GREAT MANUFACTORY OF PUTREFACTION, in which poverty, plague and disease labor in concert, and air and sunlight barely enter”. This is how the philosopher Victor Considerant (1808-1893) describes mid-19th century Paris where most of the urban structures remained those of medieval cities while the population, attracted by the mirage of improving its condition, had tripled from 500,000 to one and a half million people. Two-thirds of the inhabitants lived in decrepit neighborhoods on the limits of - and often below - poverty level. “Sewage almost always ended up in cesspools that were periodically emptied by the so-called vidangeurs, with all the problems that this entailed: the waste could spill from the containers and the stench was horrible. The sewage system, although renovated and expanded just after 1830 by the Prefect of the Seine department Charles de Rambuteau, was insufficient and in any case the scarcity of water available for the inhabitants (that was taken from the Seine in the middle of the city) did not allow its proper functioning” 5.

The devastating epidemics of 1832 and 1849 caused an extremely high mortality rate in the French capital, especially in the poorest districts: almost 5% of the population was affected.

IN 1853, NAPOLEON III, after admiring the great works in London, entrusted George Eugène Haussmann to carry out a deep urban renewal that could underscore the splendor of the Empire. The key words were: Aérer, unifier, embellir (aerate, unify, embellish).

Aerate to eliminate the terrible miasmas that affected the population, doing away with degraded medieval neighborhoods, building aqueducts and sewage systems. Unify by building streets (the famous boulevards!) that easily connected the different parts of the city. Embellish by freeing monuments like the Louvre and Notre Dame from the deteriorated districts that surrounded them and constructing new buildings like the Opéra Garnier or creating green areas qualifying as equipped gardens and planting trees along the new wide aerated streets.

Taking advantage of the excavation works to trace the new roads, 600 kilometers of new canals and piping were created under the direction of Eugène Belgrand, the engineer responsible for the hydraulic network system. Very large canals, 2.30 meters high and 1.30 meters wide, that collected rainfall, industrial and domestic waters (but initially, not the contents of the cesspools) and allowed workers to enter inside them for maintenance. “When, in 1868, the network began functioning and sewage was no longer emptied into the Seine, it was said that the waters of Paris were cleaner than those of the Thames, the reference point for the reclamation works of pestilent cities”6.

BUT IN BOTH CAPITALS, THE PROBLEM WAS NOT COMPLETELY RESOLVED: IT HAD JUST BEEN SHIFTED ELSEWHERE. In London, sewage collectors discharged dirty water in the river without treating it, and this just thirty kilometers downstream from the capital. The growing population and the progress of industrial activities around the Thames, however, had made the massive discharge critical, giving rise to discussions and protests. What to do with this sewage and how to treat it constituted a problem that kept the Metropolitan Board of Works headed by Joseph Bazalgette busy for several years.

One school of thought whose prophet was the great German chemist Justus von Liebig (the one who invented the beef bouillon cube!) retained that the sewage should be used as fertilizer to re-integrate the natural nutrients taken away from soil. But since all the announcements that the Metropolitan Board of Works issued to concede the precious material to private entrepreneurs for agricultural use did not yield any concrete solutions, the problem was resolved through a primitive purification method. By adding chemical compounds to the sewage, the solid parts deposited at the bottom of tanks and then be discharged at sea, while the liquid portion was clean enough to be discharged into the river.

PARIS, TOO, EXPERIENCED THE GREAT STINK. In the summer of 1880, Haussmann and Belgrad’s sewage network had been working for a few years, the aqueducts had greatly increased the availability of water but most of the cesspools - extremely stressed by the diffusion of toilets - were not connected to the sewage system. At night, the vidangeurs collected the sewage from the cesspools of homes and took them where the liquid portion was thrown into the rivers and the solid parts were laid out to dry, turned into poudrette and sold as fertilizer. And all this in the popular conviction that the city should return to the country the substances received through food.

The combination of heat, the bad functioning of the cesspools, the liquids that the vidangeurs would spill, also due to the darkness, the enormous accumulation of solid waste to be laid out to dry in the small canals along the roads created such a stench that a radical redesign of the sewage system was needed. In 1894, given the umpteenth epidemic of cholera two years before, the Prefect of the Seine Eugène Poubelle (promoter of the trash bins!) decreed that connection to the sewage system was mandatory and that all cesspools should be eliminated (an operation that was completed only in 1930).

IF ON ONE HAND THE URBAN REORGANIZATION AND THE CREATION OF A WATER AND SANITARY NETWORK yielded substantial improvement in hygienic conditions, the birth of microbiology (in the 17th century with Robert Hook and thanks to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope) allowed improving and combating the bacteria responsible for the epidemics that had accompanied man for almost ten thousand years, whose cause was attributed to sewer miasmas, divine vengeance or simply fate.

In 1796, vaccinations by English physician Edward Jenner began a positive fight against smallpox.

In the Vienna hospitals of 1850, the intuitions by the Hungarian Ignàc Semmelweis, corroborated by strong statistical revelations, succeed in establishing a relation between the high number of deaths by puerperal fever with doctors who... did not wash their hands!

DETERMINING WAS THE WORK BY LOUIS PASTEUR: by scientifically demonstrating that germs are not born spontaneously, he definitively disavowed secular misleading convictions of the “spontaneous generation” of life. His work was perfected by Robert Koch, who discovers the micro-bacteria that causes tuberculosis and cholera. In the last decade of the century, great steps forward deeply change the rapport between the individual and hygiene: Dmitri Ivanovskij identifies the existence of viruses (in 1892), Alexandre Yersin discovers the plague-causing bacteria (in 1894) and in 1900 Walter Reed proves that mosquitoes are responsible for yellow fever.

THE IDENTIFICATION OF BACTERIA, OF AN INVISIBLE BUT SURELY DANGEROUS ENEMY, favors the actuation of defense measures such as pasteurization, i.e., boiling milk and other foods to kill germs. “Water is defined as drinkable not when it was cool and clear, but only if it was bacteriologically pure, something that could now be quickly ascertained. Practices such as washing hands and teeth and a generally more attentive care of one’s body, clothing and living environment spread throughout society. New soaps, detergents, disinfectants, deodorants and creams were launched and publicized continuously by an industrial system that knowingly exploited cultural changes, new needs and new fashions to satisfy the increasing demand for hygiene products to be manufactured and sold en masse throughout the planet”7.

The road to improving the quality of life through the adoption of increasingly perfected hygiene norms was not over, but the battle against the pestilent cities had been won. *



1  L. Wright,Clean and Decent, Garzanti, 1961 p.203

2  G. Vigarello,Le Propre et le Sale (The Clean and the Dirty), Marsilio Editori, 1987 p.194

3  ibid., p. 200

4  L. Pinna,Autoritratto dell’immondizia (A Self-Portrait of Rubbish), Bollati Boringhieri,2011.  English version is supplied as a courtesytranslation only.

5  ibid., p. 84

6  ibid., p. 92

7  ibid., p. 107

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