Cholera, Health for All, and Nation Building

Nineteenth century cholera, while it brought together Europe as a common epidemiological space, also created stark differentiations between centers and peripheries, as different modernization projects and various social, economic, political, and professional dynamics were put together. Public health authorities fought cholera as if it was the plague or the yellow fever. The state and its medical administrators utterly failed, in all Europe, in containing the terrible disease. Their failure, however, opened the way for new scientific and administrative discourses and practices, ushering in a long period of experimentation with spatial/scientific/social technologies. The new apparatuses for observing the social body, democratically spread to all the population, created a new figure of progressive social supervised by hygienists and physicians. The waves of cholera – that were to sweep over Romania until 1893 – ravaged mostly the fluvial ports were the corn was deposited, sold and loaded on ships but also the growing cities of Bucharest and Iași. The first wave, the one that was to hit London and Paris in 1832, coincided with, and almost destroyed the emergence of modern governance in Moldavia and Walachia.

The first wave of cholera opened up, in the lower Danube, not directly spaces of emergent modernity but areas of lack of modernity, a place to be colonized by modernity projects. As part of this modernization wave, adventurous (or just pragmatic) immigrants with professional and scientific expertise came, this time not only from Russia but from France and the Habsburg Empire also. I focus on two main characters: Carol Davila, a self-declared natural son of Franz Liszt and an unnamed French duchess, that came from Paris and took a position as head of the army physicians, and Iacob Felix, coming from a lower middle class Jewish family from Bohemia, with a medical doctorate in Wien, that became the designer of Romania’s public hygiene system and Davila’s right hand man.


  • Brătescu, Gheorghe and Paul Cernovodeanu. Biciul holerei pe pământ românesc. Bucharest: Editura Academiei Române, 2002. [fragments];
  • Bărbulescu, C Physicians, Peasants, and Modern Medicine: Imagining Rurality in Romania, Budapest&New York: CEU Press, 2018. [fragments]


  • Felix, I (1870) Tractat de Hygiena Publica și Poliția Sanitară, vol I (fragments);
  • Felix, I (1889) Tractat de Igienă Publică și de Poliția Sanitară, vol II (fragments);
  • Istrati, C. (1885) Davila, Bucuresci: Dor P. Cucu.