Typhoid is transmitted by water, milk, or food contaminated by the feces of typhoid victims or carriers. Symptoms include a high fever, headache, and vomiting. Like cholera, typhoid ultimately was found to be caused by a bacterium treatable with antibiotics. However, 19th century Chicagoans were unaware of this possible cause, and fought the disease by eliminating the preconditions for its spread.
In some sense, typhoid’s rise in Chicago began in the 1870s as a state-of-the-art water supply system overwhelmed the city's sewerage system. The Chicago River was the city’s sewer and and frequently river effluents contaminated the lake water supply. The reversal of the Chicago River, made permanent by the opening of the Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900, was essential to the decline in typhoid cases. The chlorination of the city drinking supply (begun in 1912), the required pasteurization of milk (begun in 1909), and improved sewage facilities all contributed to the decline in typhoid cases by the early twentieth century. Like cholera, typhoid was brought under control before its epidemiology was well-understood.
Lacey family letters regarding typhoid, August 1884
Attorney Virgil Lacey began this series of letters on August 1, 1884, by reassuring his mother about the cholera situation in Chicago. By August 15, Lacey was sick with typhoid fever, and attended by his sister Sarah. She corresponded with their mother until his death on August 28, 1884. It was not immediately clear that Lacey had contracted typhoid, as the disease could easily be confused with dysentery and other fevers.
“Typhoid Fever in Chicago,” 1892
Chicagoans were very concerned with the onset of typhoid in the year before the World's Columbian Exposition. This article by William T. Sedgwick, a professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Allen Hazen, a chemist at the Lawrence Experimental Station in Massachusetts, originally appeared in the Engineering News and American Railway Journal in April 21, 1892. The authors expressed concern about water polluted by sewage and the "makeshifts and expedients" that characterized Chicago’s sanitary history.
Relief Maps of Chicago Water Intake Locations, 1887 and 1892
One of the most direct ways that Chicagoans sought to improve water quality was to draw drinking water from as far out into the lake as possible. By 1869, the first lake tunnel had been completed one mile into the lake at Chicago Avenue. While Chicagoans did not yet know the actual epidemiology of typhoid and cholera, they knew they wanted water that smelled and tasted purer, and that purity seemed to affect disease levels. Dr. O. N. Huff mapped the water intake locations in 1887 and 1892, showing the improvements with water drawn from further out in the lake.
Maps of Chicago Water System, 1892 and 1893
The Chicago Medical Recorder took up the question of water and disease in Chicago in their December 1893 issue. Included were maps showing the opening of the four-mile water intake tunnel between 1892 and 1893, which brought in drinking water from far further out in the lake than before. This was linked to a drop in the number of typhoid cases reported in Chicago in comparison to other large cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Water and Disease, December 1893
The Chicago Medical Recorder of December 1893 included Dr. John H. Rauch's discussion on the connections between water and disease in Chicago.
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2004 The Newberry Library. All Rights Reserved. Portions are copyrighted by other institutions and individuals. Additional information on copyright and permissions.