World History

c.1750 to c.1900



Contaminated water in Victorian London: Contaminated water in Victorian London caused many health problems, including the spread of deadly communicable diseases. Beer was considered a much safer alternative because the water that went into brewing it was boiled.

Cholera: During the nineteenth century, cholera killed tens of millions of people in Europe and its colonies. By the 1850s it had been discovered that the disease was transmitted by contaminated water, though it took years for the theory to take hold. The last serious European outbreak was from 1881-96. Improved sewage and sanitation systems prevented a virulent outbreak from occurring in Europe's cities again.

Foundling homes: An unmarried woman who became pregnant in the early modern period often could not support her child. Unable to care for the child and work the hours needed to stay alive, women had few choices. Abortion was illegal and very dangerous and pregnancy out of wedlock carried a social stigma. Sometimes women, after giving birth, would smother their child – this is known as infanticide. In the hopes of curbing the rates of infanticide, foundling homes (orphanages) began opening around Europe where women could leave their newborns. By 1800, 100,000 children were being admitted in foundling homes each year.

Infant mortality rates: Infant mortality rates were very high prior to the mid-twentieth century (about 50% of infants died within one year after their birth). It was common for children to die in infancy from disease, malnutrition, neglect, infanticide, long journeys, and many other causes. This high mortality rate lent directly to attitudes about parenting and children – some parents may have chosen to remain emotionally distant from their children, not wanting to risk overwhelming grief when that child (more than likely) died.

Penal colonies: The British had used the Americas as penal colonies right up until the American Revolution. Following the loss of their North American colonies, the British Empire began deporting convicts to penal colonies on Australia. Other penal colonies were established in India and Bermuda.

Rise in population: Improved sewer systems, the introduction of the potato to the European diet and improved drainage systems led to a rise in population during the 18th century. There was not a significant decline in the insect population of Europe during the 18th century. However, improved methods of drainage led to a decrease in instances of standing water, which attracted bugs carrying diseases. This improved drainage, along with improved sewage systems, aided in boosting the health of Europeans by decreasing cases of typhus, typhoid fever, yellow fever, and other deadly diseases, The introduction of the nutrient-rich potato from the New World helped boost the European diet and the introduction of the brown rat, which chased the plague-carrying black rat from Europe, drew the Black Death to a close.

Smallpox: In 1796, British doctor Edward Jenner discovered that smallpox could be prevented via inoculation with matter from a cowpox lesion, after observing that milkmaids infected with cowpox seemed to have immunity to smallpox.