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 dreaded 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 reluctance was the product of a pervasive laissez-faire ideology which was inherently hostile to the project of radical social planning and engineering associated with the modern state. In this ideological perspective, only slow, gradual change, was possible. 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.
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