Cholera epidemics in the United Kingdom killed many tens of thousands in the nineteenth century (Wohl, 18). Yet cholera was hardly the only deadly Victorian disease. In 1843, the surgeon Robert Storrs (1801-1847) pointed out that many cases of puerperal or childbed fever, even those "in the hands of the most skilful surgeons in London, in York, in Sheffield, and in America," ended in death. "Scarcely any recoveries are recorded," he wrote. Although puerperal fever was not as widespread as cholera, it was deadlier, as Storrs knew. How, he asked, "can we flatter ourselves that any kind of treatment can be made available in arresting so malignant a disease – a disease in which the proportion of deaths to recoveries far exceeds that of the malignant cholera!" (167)
Epidemics of cholera and puerperal fever caused widespread suffering and misery. Of cholera Storrs lamented: "To see a number of our fellow creatures, in a good state of health, in the full possession of their wonted strength, and in the midst of their years, suddenly seized with the most violent spasms, and in a few hours cast unto the tomb, is calculated to shake the firmest nerves, and to inspire dread in the stoutest heart" (quoted in Wohl, 119). Rates of mortality and morbidity due to puerperal fever suggest that the disease was similarly dismaying. Of the 24,079 deliveries recorded by the British Lying-In Hospital between 1749 and 1796, sixteen percent were followed by the mother’s death from puerperal fever. Sixty-eight percent of new mothers died from the fever in 1760, the worst year recorded; in 1770, that figure was 59.3 percent. High rates of maternal death due to the illness persisted throughout the nineteenth century. In the last twenty years of Victoria’s reign, puerperal fever accounted for between 43 and 57 percent of childbed deaths (Loudon, 26). In 1849, Fleetwood Churchill (1808-1878), a Nottingham-born physician, obstetrician and author of several books on maternal health, claimed that the puerperal epidemics were "so fraught with associations of distress" as to put other epidemics in the shade.
Painting a word-picture of family bliss destroyed, Churchill identified particular losses caused by maternal death from puerperal fever:
The course of a favourable convalescence after parturition suddenly interrupted, and without any appreciable cause, exchanged for symptoms which excite the utmost alarm in the physician: the anxiety and anguish of those so lately rejoicing, the blighting of the sweetest hopes in life, and finally the rupture of its deepest ties, and the melancholy desolation of a home but lately the abode of happiness. (3)
Unfortunately, in the face of the recurring epidemics, such word-pictures could not substitute for action. Members of the medical profession had as much difficulty acting effectively against puerperal fever as they had with cholera.
- Puerperal Fever: A Question of Definition
- Puerperal Fever: Fog and Filthy Air
- Puerperal Fever: Overcrowding and Effluvia
Churchill, F. "An Historical Sketch of the Epidemics of Puerperal Fever by the Editor." Essays on Puerperal Fever and Other Diseases Peculiar to Women. London: The Sydenham Society, 1849.
Loudon, I. "Deaths in childbed from the eighteenth century to 1935." Medical History 30 (1986): 1-41.
Storrs, R. "Observations on Puerperal Fever; containing a Series of Evidence respecting its Origin, Causes, and Mode of Propagation." Provincial Medical Journal 7 (1843).
Wohl, A. S. Endangered Lives: Public Health on Victorian Britain. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1984.
Last modified 11 September 2020