In Britain today, we enjoy a high standard of living compared to times past. Our hygiene regulations are strict, meaning cases of food borne illness and diseases are relatively rare, and our sanitation systems are extremely efficient and well controlled. However, it wasn’t always like this and that is down to a few individuals in history who campaigned tirelessly for social reform.
Edwin Chadwick was one of those tireless campaigners. He was born near Manchester in 1800 and lived in the North until moving to London in 1810. It was a time in the history of this nation when industry and manufacturing were booming and jobs for factory workers were plentiful. People would move in droves to towns where factories were hiring and business owners would provide housing for their employees but, it was housing that was cheap and which had very poor or no sanitation. It was also a time when there were serious health epidemics, some of the most notable being the first great cholera epidemic in 1830-31 and typhoid epidemics in big cities in 1837 and 1838.
During this time, Edwin Chadwick had studied the law and had worked his way by merit into an advisory role within government. He had inherited his father’s journalistic skills and was highly regarded as a researcher and writer. Chadwick was commissioned to assist with the enquiry into the Poor Laws in 1832 and it was through his research that he started to uncover the link between poor sanitation and low life expectancy.
In 1842, he published what was arguably the most important work of his career, The Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population in Great Britain. This report showed, through careful research and substantiated examples, that there was a direct correlation between the poor living conditions and sanitation of the working population and their short life expectancy and susceptibility to disease.
Chadwick had proved something that was undeniable and started something that was unstoppable. His report led the way for the Public Health Act of 1948 and set off a shift in thinking that the government had a responsibility in ensuring suitable sanitation systems for all. He was appointed as Commissioner for the Board of Health which set out to start implementing some of the recommendations of Chadwick’s report.
This was just the beginning of understanding how disease spread and the need for effective sanitation. Chadwick himself subscribed to the miasma theory, which supposed that disease was spread through bad smells in the air. At the time, this was widely believed to be the cause, although the germ theory quickly became the accepted position in the mid-1800s as understanding increased. The measures Chadwick proposed and applied, although he held to the miasma theory, undoubtedly contributed to the improvement of living conditions. Removing the bad smells would often mean that the bacteria, the actual cause of disease, were also removed, thus providing a cleaner and more sanitised living environment.
Chadwick had some unpopular political views on public health and centralised administration and, ultimately, this led to him being removed from the Board of Public Health but he continued to campaign for cleaner living conditions and for separate pipes for clean water and sewage removal in every household. His conviction was so strong that he even left £47,000 in his will for the purpose of further advances in sanitation and education of the population in such matters.
Chadwick always held to the miasma theory and was viewed by some as difficult and arrogant but his place in history is secure and it seems the tide of negative opinion towards him changed as he was awarded a knighthood in 1889 for his services to public health, just one year before he died.
Whether it is true that he was arrogant or difficult, he is truly a man to whom much is owed. His research and unstinting belief in the importance of improving sanitation is what first set us on the road to the high standard of living conditions we currently enjoy. The degree of knowledge about the spread of disease and contamination that we now know is due in no small part to this man, Edwin Chadwick, who started a revolution in public health and understanding that continues to this day.