Cows, Contagion and Sanitation in Victorian Dublin


Dr Juliana Adelman (St Patrick’s College Drumcondra)


Cows, Contagion and Sanitation in Victorian Dublin


Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland Seminar Series, 26 September 2013


'Close up cow' by Paul Stephenson, 3 October 2007 (CC BY 2.0)

Close up cow‘ by Paul Stephenson, 3 October 2007 (CC BY 2.0)

This paper examines the relationship between humans and animals and specifically how the animal economy of the city of Dublin in the nineteenth century effected public health policy and practice. It looks at certain ideas around contagion and germs that became salient with the impact of various epidemics in both humans and animals over three distinct time periods: the first, between 1849-1865, encompasses the Dublin Improvement Act and before the cattle plague; the second, 1865-1874, which encompasses the cattle plague, two cholera epidemics, and a problem with smallpox; and finally, 1874-1880, when, in the run up to the Sewerage and Drainage Inquiry, increasing concerns about Dublin’s death rate were being voiced. The main diseases of concern for this paper are contagious bovine pleuropneumonia and smallpox.

Juliana argues in ‘Cows, Contagion and Sanitation’ that there is evidence for a shift in ideas over this timer period for both how animals are viewed and how their impact on public health is understood. There is a slow but perceptible shift away from a focus on disease in dead animals and thus slaughterhouses and meat to one that suggests disease by living animals should be a priority, leading to a focus on dairy yards and milk. The starting point is Michael Worboys work on cattle plague and its contribution to the acceptance of ideas about contagionism and his argument that veterinarians and medical men took different paths in terms of how they viewed disease, with veterinarians advocating a culling and compensation policy where animals were essentially quarantined and then slaughtered and having little interest in vaccination. Conversely, doctors and sanitarians, no matter how much they might have wished, could have hardly proposed the same solution for diseased persons.

Worboys is largely concerned with how contagion and germ theories spread among medical practitioners and the effects of bacteriology on laboratory medicine and he sees the 1870s as a key period for the acceptance of germ theories and how they effect practice and public health; although other writers have suggested that there was resistance to these practices well into the twentieth century. This paper, approaching the problem from a different angle, is interested in how attitudes towards animals and animal disease played into debates about public health and also how the spread of ideas about germs effect and were effected by how public health officials dealt with animals.

Juliana Adelman

Dr Juliana Adelman (St Patrick's College, Drumcondra)

Dr Juliana Adelman (St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra)

Juliana Adelman is a lecturer in the History Department of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. Her research interests include the economic and social history of nineteenth-century Ireland, the history of disease, the history of science, urban history and environmental history. She is the secretary of the Economic and Social History Society of Ireland, the chair of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Network Ireland and on the editorial board of the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C.

A widely published scholar, Juliana’s monograph, Communities of Science in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, was published in 2009. Her current book project, Animal city: Victorian Dublin (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming) examines changing human-animal relationships in nineteenth-century Dublin.  She has also developed a project on the intersections between medicine and food and, with the food critic Catherine Cleary, she researched, wrote and presented History on a Plate (RTE Lyric FM and RTE Radio I); twelve radio documentaries exploring Irish social history through food.


Leave a Reply