Gautier, Amand (French, 1825-1894)

Cholera—Death in the Jura 1854

Reference Type:
Cholera was a frightening disease that for many centuries was thought to be the result of airborne transmission. By the early nineteenth century, however, most educated people no longer believed that cholera was contagious, since physicians and nurses who treated the ill rarely came down with the disease. But how it was contracted was still unknown, and there was no cure. Books and newspapers promoted various diet and hygiene practices, homeopathic treatments were popular, and physicians tried options like bleeding and opium. Most cholera sufferers were treated at home, but individuals who had no family or friends to help often ended up in charity hospitals like the one seen here. In this image, Amand Gautier represented a true-life scene from five years earlier. He and his friend, medical student Paul Gachet, traveled in 1854 to the French departments of Aube and Jura to help people suffering from cholera. Here, in a charity hospital in the Jura, Gachet tends to miserable patients with the help of a nurse. Later in his life Gachet was well-known for his homeopathic practice, so perhaps the bowl he carries is filled with a mixture he thought might be beneficial. The nurse holds what is most likely a bottle of opium. The overall darkness of the scene reflects the atmosphere and mood of such hospitals, which operated under stark conditions that offered very little privacy for patients. In 1855, one year after Gautier and Gachet visited the Jura, British physician John Snow discovered that cholera had spread in London through contaminated drinking water. This information, along with the identification of the cholera bacillus by Robert Koch in 1883 and further study of the disease, helped to prevent vast epidemics in Europe and North America by the end of the nineteenth century. (Source of information about the history of cholera: Notes by Mariann Smith
History of Medicine
Infectious Disease
Wellcome Library, London