Time Machine Tuesday: Typhoid Epidemic

Today the Denver Post published a list of the leading causes of death in Colorado.  You will see that nowhere on this list is typhoid fever.  Yet when I searched old health reports to find the leading causes of death in previous decades, typhoid fever kept showing up.  The 1879-1880 Biennial Report of the State Board of Health, available online from our library, reports that there were about 700 cases of typhoid fever in Denver in 1879.  (Denver’s population at this time was only about 35,000).  The report contains an essay about the Denver epidemic.  “There was scarcely a physician in the city…who had not from one to several cases, and in not a few instances, one dozen on hand at the same time.”  The essay noted that “death from the disease was not infrequent.”  The numbers in 1880 were down a little, as “the streets and alleys in the more populous portions of town were freed, to a considerable extent, of old accumulations of a great variety of filth.” Numbers of cases still remained high, however.  The essay further examines the causes of the epidemic, including polluted air, soil, and water. (Tip, don’t read this section while trying to enjoy your lunch).

The 1894-1900 report also documents a typhoid epidemic, this time in Fort Collins.  Dr. William C. Mitchell describes his investigation of the Fort Collins epidemic:  “An inspection of the ditch [at a patient’s house] was made, and it was found to be tapped from a larger ditch further above…presumably to act as a sewer to carry away refuse matter.  After winding around the house this little ditch ran again into the main street and…joined the Poudre just below the bridge at Bellvue.” 

With the knowledge that typhoid fever epidemics were in large part due to poor sanitation, the state worked to improve sanitary conditions and accordingly the number of typhoid cases dropped in subsequent years.  The State Board of Health reported 2,707 cases of typhoid in 1906, down to just 34 cases thirty years later in 1936

So, in comparison to today, what were the leading causes of death 80 years ago?  The statistics from 1936 report the fifteen leading causes of death as:

  1. Heart disease, 2,507 
  2. Pneumonia, 1,389
  3. Cancer, 1,223 
  4. Accidents, 1,045
  5. Cerebral hemorrhage, 991
  6. Nephritis (Bright’s disease), 959
  7. Tuberculosis, 755 
  8. “Congenital debility and malformation,” 669
  9. Influenza, 379 
  10. Diarrhea and enteritis, 336
  11. Suicide, 220
  12. Arteriosclerosis, 208
  13. Appendicitis, 204
  14. Diabetes, 192
  15. Hernia, 176