Mapping disease: typhoid in 1890s Wellington, New Zealand

From the turn of the 19th century, social cartography was centred on mapping contagious disease – the most urgent problem of rapidly growing cities around the world. The examples which feature in my forthcoming book, Mapping Society range from Yellow Fever in New York, 1798, followed by a large number of maps of cholera, ranging across France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Before the creation of epidemiology as a science in its own right, it was the combined efforts of physicians and medical officers (namely public health officials, many of whom themselves had medical training) that contributed the effort of understanding the spatial distribution of disease.

In the UK, it was John Snow who famously hypothesised in the 1850s that cholera was caused by a germ spread through contaminated water, in contrast with the prevalent miasma theory of contagion through bad air (though evidently there were scientists in Italy and Germany working on isolating the bacterium several years previously). The two theories were debated vigorously, but Snow’s ground-breaking studies of the 1853–5 epidemic resulted in his being considered the father of epidemiology, due not only to his well-reasoned statistics but to his maps, which illustrated to a lay audience the evidence of a cluster of cholera cases amongst people living close to a single water pump on Broad Street and, hence, that contaminated water was the source of the disease.

Nevertheless, both in Europe and much farther afield in New Zealand, the evidence for cholera and typhoid being water-borne continued to be debated, with the Wellington medical officer William Chapple’s mapping the incidence of typhoid across the city, to see if he could find where blocked pipes were causing sewer vapours to back up into houses (see image below[i]).

Typhoid map layout_zoom
Section of map of central Wellington drawn up by the city’s medical officer, William Chapple, to show the location of typhoid between 1890 and 1892. Source: Wellington City Archives. Reference: 00233:34:1892/740 typhoid map

Chapple’s map identifies a cluster of typhoid cases in the Holland Street area of the city, where he had found that the street’s sewer was leaking had contaminated the surrounding soil. Coupled to empirical fieldwork, which found overcrowded housing in the street, the maps were able to highlight (with graphic emphasis of the leaking sewer), the spatial association between housing quality, urban situation and disease.

While the map is quite late for the sequence of disease maps reported in Mapping Society, Ben Schrader has pointed out that the ‘miasma theory’ that disease such as cholera or typhoid were air borne, continued to persist in the country, despite the discovery in 1885 of Salmonella typhi by a US veterinary pathologist Daniel Elmer Salmon[ii] (almost simultaneously with the discovery in 1884 of the cholera bacillus, Vibrio cholerae by the German scientist, Robert Koch.)

Although the fact that the disease was likely to have been the result of contamination of drinking water by leaking cesspits was not yet accepted at this stage, the subsequent construction of municipal water and sewer schemes seems to have had the desired result of a drop in mortality from water-borne diseases in urban New Zealand by the turn of the 20th century.

Typhoid map layout_cropped
Map of central Wellington drawn up by the city’s medical officer, William Chapple, to show the location of typhoid between 1890 and 1892. Source: Wellington City Archives. Reference: 00233:34:1892/740 typhoid map


[i] I am grateful to Matthew Plummer, who brought the map to my attention via Twitter. A downloadable version of the map can be found here:

[ii] Schrader B. (2016) The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books

The featured image is of a butcher’s shop in Wellington, New Zealand, from:

The language of poverty

Slightly late for its inclusion in Mapping Society, I’ve come across this quote from Max Weber, writing about the stockyards of turn of the twentieth century Chicago as a landscape of “lowing, bleating, endless filth”. His likening of the city as akin to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work”[i] is an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities. Not only is the use of graphic imagery a means to convey the urgency of the problem, (and in this instance to reveal the extent of the problem just as a dissection might do), but also to argue for its solution: whether to cleanse, or to separate it out.

Image result for chicago stockyards horror not:pinterest
Men on horseback herding cattle during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Photograph by Chicago Daily News, Inc. Source: Chicago History Museum

Separating the unclean from the cleansed is not of course a new idea. David Sibley has written how the Greeks and the Romans saw themselves as standing at the centre of the civilised world, so that the farther away a group was from the imperial hub, the ‘greater was its “vice”’.[ii] Any civilisation that was inferior to the Greek or Roman culture was in effect deviating from the mean – or the norm – in its statistical as well as its physical sense. A map of prostitution, he argues, provides essential information about ‘the social topography of the town. The basic principle of medieval regulation was to designate certain areas to prostitution, either inside or outside the walls, and limit vice strictly to them.’ This was a form of ‘social hygiene’, locating prostitution in poor districts, ‘often close to the river’ or beyond the city walls.[iii]

By drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the centre from the periphery. This analysis recalls similar ideas put forward by Richard Sennett regarding the treatment of the Jews of Venice. Sennett writes of the ‘fear of touching’ that led the Christian community of Venice five centuries ago to seek to isolate its foreign inhabitants, as if they were ‘isolating a disease that had infected the community . . . with corrupting bodily vices’.

Despite the complexity of the subject, many nineteenth-century texts continued to use powerfully negative imagery to describe the poor, foreigners and other people viewed as marginal to society in emotive, sensual terms – emphasising their moral contagiousness. David Sibley has described how a distinction was made between the ‘pure bourgeois and the defiled proletarian’ in mid-nineteenth century Paris as part of an effort to ‘deodorize utopian city space’ during the reshaping of the city under Baron Haussmann.[iv]

Minority groups are typically not the only people to be marginalised spatially. So too are the poorest classes. Despite the slum clearances that took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the increasing numbers of people moving into the city from the countryside, coupled with a lack of organised city planning, led to the formation of poverty areas constituted by an ‘almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other . . . like a rabbit warren’.[v] Robin Evans has commented that the campaigns to clear the slums were due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency ‘. . . as if the homes had been one great block of stone eaten by slugs into innumerable small chambers and connecting passages’.[vi] Overcrowding was linked with immorality, while poverty was associated linguistically with the animal (in this instance, the insect) world, suggesting the poor to be non-human in their behaviour. At the same time, likening the city’s morphology – its physical form and layout – to a rabbit warren shows how the city was itself viewed by people as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants.[vii]

No language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’.[viii] This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well.


[i] “(Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[ii] D. Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 50.

[iii] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 87. Bronislaw Geremek has similarly described how the city walls of medieval Paris were seen as a purifying device, defining territory within and without the walls, and placing the prostitutes beyond them. B. Geremek and J. Birrell, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[iv] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 57. For more on Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris, see section on the contemporary mapping of disease, in Chapter 2 of this volume (p. 000).

[v] H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 4 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861); Penguin Classics reprint edition, ed. V. Neuburg (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 299–300.

[vi] R. Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, ed. R. Evans (London: AA Documents 2, 1997, first published 1978). ‘Rookery’ is a term dating from the 1820s to describe a particularly low quality of housing, closely packed with people of the poorest class (it refers to colonies of rooks, which nest in trees in large populations during the breeding season).

[vii] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’.

[viii] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.

‘Mapping Society’: new book out with UCL Press in September

I’m pleased to announce the forthcoming open access publication in September 2018 of Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography with UCL Press.

The book reflects two decades of enquiry into the spatial nature of society, focusing on the detailed patterning of social phenomena as these are laid out in historical maps. The importance of a spatial analysis of historical data is not to be underestimated. Going beyond placing the data on the map to a deeper analysis of the geographical patterning of the data allows the researcher to pose a variety of questions: regarding the spatial character of the urban setting, regarding whether social data of a single type have spatial characteristics in common, and – in general – to control for spatial effects when analysing social patterns.

For me, the Booth maps have become the quintessential starting point when exploring the relationship between the spatial organisation of cities and how societies take shape over time. I have written about the spatial-temporal evolution of cities in my earlier book, Suburban Urbanities. This current publication effectively goes back to the origins of my research, starting with my most fundamental subject of interest: how the spatial configuration of cities shapes social patterns and, specifically, urban social problems.

Booth and legend
Section of the Charles Booth map of Poverty, 1889 – with legend

This book does so by taking maps of social statistics and developing a close reading of the maps themselves as well as the context within which they were created. A side product of this inquiry has been the discovery of the extent to which social cartography is frequently used not only as a tool for communicating information on patterns of settlement, but also for other purposes: for propaganda, to collate evidence or to support scientific argumentation. The use of social maps as an analytical device is less prevalent and this book will show how a reading of the spatial patterns captured by such maps can reveal some fundamental rules about how cities work according to a specifically spatial logic of society.

From a rare map of yellow fever in eighteenth-century New York, to Charles Booth’s famous maps of poverty in nineteenth-century London, an Italian racial zoning map of early twentieth century Asmara, to a map of wealth disparities in the banlieues of twenty-first-century ParisMapping Society traces the evolution of social cartography over the past two centuries, examining maps of ethnic or religious difference, poverty, and health inequalities, demonstrating how they not only serve as historical records of social enquiry, but also constitute inscriptions of social patterns that have been etched deeply on the surface of cities.