For many nights he lies in bed, without getting up by day. He is tired and sleepy. A harsh-voiced man comes to the bed, and says that he must not lay his hands outside the coverlet. They give him evil-tasting stuff with a spoon; he eats nothing. There is whispering in the room, and his mother weeps. Then he sits again at the window in the bedroom. Bells are tolling the whole day long.
Green biers are carried over the churchyard. Sometimes a dark mass of people stand round a black chest. Gravediggers with their spades keep coming and going. He has to wear a copper plate suspended by a blue silk ribbon on his breast, and chew all day at a root. That is the cholera epidemic of 1854.
August Strindberg – The Son of a Servant (1886 - 1909)
A quote taken from Strindberg's autobiographical novel. In 1854 he would have been five years old. It opens up a chink of light on a world without modern medical science and what a grim world it must have been. Dickens’ world, Jane Austen’s world and yet this is just one of the shadows under which they lived. Also in 1854 there was the Broad Street cholera outbreak in London.
To my mind the most difficult aspect is trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be familiar with the dangers of cholera yet ignorant of its root cause. We often seem to take knowledge for granted yet hard-won knowledge is the gulf between now and then.