Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Interpretive Digital Essay : Water in Chicago
Essay: People and the Port
Photo Essays:
Solitary Lives
City of Bridges
Chicago Harbors
Essay: Using the Chicago River
Photo Essays:
Goose Island
Indiana Dunes
Essay: Sanitation in Chicago
Photo Essays:
The Sanitary and Ship Canal
Water-Related Epidemics
Essay: Water and Urban Life
Photo Essays:
Houses and Water
Shoreline Development
Growing Up Along Water
Water-Related Epidemics

While today we understand that cholera and typhoid are both bacterial diseases and that polio is a viral disease, Chicagoans fought them without this basic knowledge across the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Instead, Chicagoans looked for patterns of epidemic outbreaks and sought ways to prevent the conditions surrounding those outbreaks. Without the aid of germ theory, nineteenth-century public health officials, physicians, and engineers determined that control of water supply and wastewater were crucial to checking these epidemics.

Although they were not the only diseases related to polluted water supply and inadequate sanitation, cholera, typhoid, and polio followed one after the other in Chicago, as sanitarians sought to protect residents from them. Over time, sanitarians found that cholera could be controlled by better water supply. Improving water supply, however, led to more wastewater in and around Chicago, which increased the incidence of typhoid fever. While better plumbing and sanitation helped control typhoid fever, it reinvigorated an old disease like polio, as residents lost what had been a natural immunity to the disease.

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