Can I have a glass of Cholera?

Cholera is one disease which is known worldwide because of the numerous pandemics that have occurred in relation to it over the years. It is one of the main reasons why we insist on clean drinking water everywhere and why we make it a point to ask for mineral water bottles while we visit a restaurant.

This blogpost is not as dramatic as the previous two posts. I have chosen to highlight it because as a student I had often heard about the cholera pandemics which killed millions across the globe and the measures taken by the various governments, the WHO and NGO’s to tackle them. Along with this, I also came to know about a person who with his stubbornness tried to dramatically prove to the world his theory, which unfortunately for him is now proven to be false!

Max Von Pettenkofer was a Bavarian chemist and hygienist. He was instrumental in bringing in theories about personal hygiene and so he is known as “an apostle of good water, fresh air and proper sewage disposal”. A contagionist is someone who believes in the theory of germs and bacteria being responsible for diseases. Pettenkofer was NOT one among them. He was responsible for converting the field of hygiene into a research field.

He was one of eight children born to a farmer but was brought up by his wealthy uncle who was instrumental in educating him. But both of them were short tempered and often fought with each other causing Pettenkofer to leave him. At one point his uncle even punched him in the face and so Pettenkofer quit his job as a pharmacist and joined theatre where he realized that he was terrible at acting and so went back to his original profession.

During the early 1850s there were epidemics of cholera and typhoid in Munich which led Pettenkofer to investigate the cause for the same. The results of his investigation convinced him that the cause lay in the moisture content of the soil which varied with the rise and fall of ground water. Though his theories are now proven to be incorrect, he stood by them at the time.

The incident which brought him into prominence and the reason for his inclusion in this series happened on 7th October 1892. Everyone knows about Robert Koch and his theories about bacteria causing diseases. These theories were naturally against the beliefs of Max Von Pettenkofer. The topic they argued most was regarding cholera. Robert Koch isolated the Vibrio Cholerae, the bacteria from contaminated water and declared that it was this bacterium which was responsible for cholera. On the other hand, Pettenkofer believed that the cause was multifactorial including “bad air” being responsible for it. Finally, when he could not take it any longer, Pettenkofer asked for a broth of the vibrio cholerae bacteria from Koch and in the presence of several witnesses drank it. He also took bicarbonate of soda to neutralize the acid in his stomach because according to Koch, the acid had the ability to destroy the bacteria in the stomach. Pettenkofer suffered some mild symptoms for a week which he said were not that of cholera. People now believe that he did have cholera but maybe in a milder form because he might’ve obtained immunity from a previous infection.

The sad end to Pettenkofer’s life came many years later when after retirement, in a fit of depression, he shot himself.




  1. Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that can, in a matter of hours, result in profound, rapidly progressive dehydration and death.
  2. The natural habitat of V. cholerae is coastal salt water and brackish estuaries.
  3. Ingestion of water contaminated by human feces is the most common means of acquisition of V. cholera
  4. Cholera was originally found in the Ganges delta in India during the 19th century
  5. Since 1817, seven global pandemics have occurred.
  6. If fluids and electrolytes are not replaced, hypovolemic shock and death may ensue.
  7. 80% of the cases can be successfully treated with Oral Rehydration solution (ORS)



  • In 1858, London was hit by “The Great Stink” of the river Thames.
  • The river was said to be a floating nightmare of human excreta, industrial waste and slaughterhouse debris
  • The situation was so terrible that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had to cancel a pleasure cruise on the Thames because of the smell.
  • This led to multiple epidemics of cholera
  • The 4 cholera epidemics in London itself killed 40,00 people
  • It didn’t help that many people at the time believed in the Maisma theory just like Max Von Pettenkofer according to which “bad air” was responsible for the disease.
  • This was responsible for London waking up to the problem and building the mammoth underground sewage disposal system which functions effectively even to this day.

This post is a part of the #AToZChallenge – 2018


  1. That bad air theory really hindered the progress for an entire generation back then. I can only picture what the river was like back then… Then again, maybe it is better not to picture it!

  2. This reminds me of the story of how ulcers were researched and the noble that led to it. I cant quite place the name of the scientist but the scientists in the past seem to have bene truly hardcore in their practice.

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