Skip to main content

Knowledge in the Time of Cholera

The Struggle over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century

Vomiting. Diarrhea. Dehydration. Death. Confusion. In 1832, the arrival of cholera in the United States created widespread panic throughout the country. For the rest of the century, epidemics swept through American cities and towns like wildfire, killing thousands. Physicians of all stripes offered conflicting answers to the cholera puzzle, ineffectively responding with opiates, bleeding, quarantines, and all manner of remedies, before the identity of the dreaded infection was consolidated under the germ theory of disease some sixty years later.

These cholera outbreaks raised fundamental questions about medical knowledge and its legitimacy, giving fuel to alternative medical sects that used the confusion of the epidemic to challenge both medical orthodoxy and the authority of the still-new American Medical Association. In Knowledge in the Time of Cholera, Owen Whooley tells us the story of those dark days, centering his narrative on rivalries between medical and homeopathic practitioners and bringing to life the battle to control public understanding of disease, professional power, and democratic governance in nineteenth-century America.

328 pages | 6 halftones, 1 map, 1 line drawing, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013


Sociology: Medical Sociology


“This is a valuable and interesting book that will be of interest to scholars from many fields. It makes a contribution to cholera studies but, more importantly, it adds new dimensions to the sociological literature on medical professionalisation. Furthermore, Whooley’s conceptualisation of the epistemic contest, elaborated in his concluding chapter, should prove useful in analysing many intellectual debates. I expect we will see it utilised repeatedly by future scholars.”

Sociology of Health & Illness

"Knowledge in the Time of Cholera is a provocative book, sweeping in scope and valuable for bringing the interpretive insights of the sociology of knowledge to bear on nineteenth-century medicine."

Science Magazine

“Whooley provides a sustained attack on traditional narratives of the straight-line upward trajectory of scientific discovery and professionalization of physicians. . . . [This] book is for those who relish academic combat and can delve into notions of epistemology wielded as weapons of control.”

Health Affairs

“Owen Whooley has gone after big game! Knowledge in the Time of Cholera is bold and assertive, forcing a reconsideration of the historical and sociological relationships between medicine and science, and providing an impressive analysis of the deeply intertwined development of these two professions.”

Thomas Gieryn | author of Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line

“There are books on the history of cholera, on the laboratory and scientific networks, and on epistemology and science, but none like this one. Owen Whooley has produced a truly original book, an important intervention in science studies, history of medicine, and nineteenth-century American society and culture.”

Alexandra Minna Stern | author of Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America

Table of Contents

Introduction: Of Cholera, Quacks, and Competing Medical Visions

1 Choleric Confusion
2 The Formation of the AMA, the Creation of Quacks
3 The Intellectual Politics of Filth
4 Cholera Becomes a Microbe
5 Capturing Cholera, and Epistemic Authority, in the Laboratory

Conclusion: Medicine after the Time of Cholera

Appendix: A Comment on Sources

Reference List


Science, Knowledge, and Technology section, American Sociological Association: Robert K. Merton Award

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press