Historic Meanings of “Cholera”

Today the term cholera is restricted to suspected infections caused by Vibrio cholerae, sometimes called Asiatic cholera. Vibrio cholerae produces a very characteristic watery diarrhea sometimes described as ‘rice water’. This narrow definition wasn’t always so.

Since antiquity, cholera could refer to any diarrhea or dysentery. The term cholera comes from the Greek word cholē meaning bile. Cholera then was a flushing of bile from the body in an attempt to rebalance Galen’s four humors of the body (blood, bile, black bile, and phlegm) [1].

In 19th century American medical records,  it is common to see three types of cholera reported: cholera morbus, cholera infantum, and Asiatic cholera. Cholera morbus and cholera infantum were both terms for non-specific diarrhea and/or dysentery in adults and children under age five respectively.  Cholera morbus was sometimes called the summer complaint and was usually found in older children and adults from July to September [2]. It was caused by a variety of gastrointestinal pathogens with a significant contribution from contaminated food. Cholera infantum was given as the primary cause of death in children under age five in 19th century Illinois [2]. Physicians specifically associated it with the ages of teething and finger foods. Even given its non-specific definition, it was still probably over diagnosed due to paradigms of childhood illness. For example, early Illinois physicians  did not believe that children could contract malaria, then endemic in Illinois. Asiatic cholera is caused by Vibrio cholerae, epidemic in Illinois in 1832-1834, 1838, 1849-1852, 1866-1867, and 1892 [2]. Apart from discrete epidemic waves, Asiatic cholera was uncommon in America.


[1] Männikkö, N. (Ed) (2011). Etymologia: Cholera. Emerging Infectious Disease, 17 (11) http://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1711.ET1711

[2]  Rawlings, Issac D. et al. (1927).The Rise and Fall of Disease in Illinois. State Department of Health.

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