Here it is, in all its misbegotten second-hand glory. Comments, please: Let me know if there are any problems with the theory, or, more mundanely, with the citations. (What can I say? I'm used to MLA.)
The 1856 cholera epidemic was one of the last major recurrences of cholera in Britain, as steady improvements in London’s infrastructure and the development of medical science limited recurrences of this dread disease, among other epidemic diseases. Indeed, the cholera epidemic of the previous year had ended largely because of the intervention of John Snow, who had earlier famously identified the contaminated water at the public pump in St. James’ Parish as the epidemic’s source. Snow’s example epitomized the development of the British state, in broader matters of public affairs as in the specific field of public health, as an essentially regulatory entity concerned with ensuring the proper functioning of the bodies of its subjects.
As Foucault demonstrates, western European governments in the early modern era were concerned with prohibiting improper behaviour on the parts of their subjects, whether sexual, religious, or political. When, in the 19th century, the growth of modern medical science allowed the regulation of contagious diseases, their scope promptly spread to encompass this new field. Following previous established precedents, the control of epidemic disease was manifested not only in terms of action against disease-causing elements—whether infestations of bacteria or virii or inadequate civic sanitation—but against behaviours, particularly those characteristic among working-class communities and the poor, which were viewed as causative or aggravating factors in illness. Indeed, the regulation and limitation of the biological and social causes of disease was seen as a major function of the 19th century state, demonstrating its new capacity in the modern era.
Even as the British state began its efforts to control the spread of epidemic disease, however, the British state demonstrated numerous signs of reluctance to intervene. This was owing to the continued presence of a pervasive laissez-faire ideology which was inherently hostile to the project of radical social planning and engineering associated with the modern state. This tension continued, in one form or another, well into the 20th century in the United Kingdom, leaving its legacy in popular attitudes and official state policies towards epidemic disease.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Hamlin, Christopher. “Revolutions in public health: 1848 and 1998?’‘ British Medical Journal 317 (1998): 587-91. [database on-line] ; available from findarticles.com.
Lawrence, Christopher. Medicine in the Making of Modern Britain, 1700-1920. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Lemert, Charles C. and Garth Gillian. Michel Foucault: Social Theory and Transgression. New York: Columbia University, 1982.
Pickering, Paul A. “‘And your Petitioners &c’: Chartist Petitioning in Popular Politics 1838-48.” English Historical Review 116 (April 2001): 23. [database on-line] ; available from findarticles.com.
Porter, Roy. Disease, medicine and society in England, 1550-1860. 2nd ed. 1987. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 1993.
Rees, Ronald. “Under the weather: climate and disease, 1700-1900.” History Today 46 (January 1996): 35-40. [database on-line] ; available from findarticles.com.
Schmidt, Albert J. Rev. of The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, by Jeffrey Auerbach, The Great Exhibition, by John R. Davis, and The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis, by Stephen Halliday. Journal of Social History 34 (Summer 2001). [database on-line] ; available from findarticles.com.
Smart, Barry. Michel Foucault. London and New York: Ellis Horwood and Tavistock, 1985.
Snow, John, M.D. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. London: John Churchill, 1855. 23 August 2001, (29 November 2002)
Watts, Sheldon. Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism. New Haven: Yale University, 1998.