The Spirit of 1848 A Network Linking Politics, Passion, & Public Health 
an officially recognized caucus within the American Public Health Association

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Why 1848?



Selected notable events in and around 1848
(Suggest additional events for this page)


Louis René Villermé publishes the first major study of workers' health in France, A Description of the Physical and Moral State of Workers Employed in Cotton, Wool, and Silk Mills (1840) and Flora Tristan, based in France, publishes her London Journal: A Survey of London Life in the 1830s (1840), a pathbreaking account of the extreme poverty and poor health of its working classes, including sex workers*; in England, Edwin Chadwick publishes General Report on Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population in Great Britain (1842); first child labor laws in the Britain and the United States (1842); end of the Second Seminole War (1842); prison reform movement in the United States initiated by Dorothea Dix (1843); Friedrich Engels publishes The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845); John Griscom publishes The Sanitary Condition of the Laboring Population of New York with Suggestions for Its Improvement (1845); Irish famine (1845-1848) despite high agricultural output and protests against British agricultural and trade policies; start of US-Mexican war (in Mexico, known as “La invasión de Estados Unidos a México,” i.e., “The United States Invasion of Mexico”) (1846); Frederick Douglass founds The North Star, an anti-slavery newspaper in the United States (1847); Southwood Smith publishes An Address to the Working Classes of the United Kingdom on their Duty in the Present State of the Sanitary Question (1847)


World-wide cholera epidemic

Uprisings in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Palermo, Milan, Naples, Parma, Rome, Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest; start of Second Sikh war against British in India

In the midst of the 1848 revolution in Germany, Rudolf Virchow founds the medical journal Medical Reform (Medicinische Reform), and writes his classic "Report on the Typhus Epidemic in Upper Silesia," in which he concludes that preserving health and preventing disease requires "full and unlimited democracy" and radical measures rather than "mere palliatives"

Revolution in France, abdication of Louis Philippe, worker uprising in Paris, and founding of The Second Republic, which creates a public health advisory committee attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce and establishes network of local public health councils

First Public Health Act in Britain, which creates a General Board of Health, empowered to establish local boards of health to deal with the water supply, sewerage, and control of "offensive trades," and also to conduct surveys of sanitary conditions

The newly formed American Medical Association sets up a Public Hygiene Committee to address public health issues

First Women's Rights Convention in the United States, at Seneca Falls

Henry Thoreau publishes Civil Disobedience, to protest paying taxes to support the United State's war against Mexico

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels publish The Communist Manifesto

77 enslaved persons in the District of Columbia attempt to escape to freedom aboard The Pearl schooner. While the attempt is unsuccessful and many participants are sold to Southern plantations, the Pearl Incident provokes renewed activism for abolition of slavery in the U.S. Frederick Douglass highlights the hypocrisy of enslavers in Washington who stopped the Pearl while “feasting and rejoicing over” the 1848 democratic revolution in France.*

The Seneca Nation of Indians is founded as a modern democracy with a constitution and elected representative government, building on a democratic self-governing tradition begun in 1200 C.E. by the Hodinöhsö:ni’or Six Nations Confederacy.*

First Chinese immigrants arrive in California: Chinese immigrants comprise 90% of workers who build the Central Pacific Railroad and complete the transcontinental rail system. Paid 30% less than white workers, suffering high injury rates from this hazardous work, and excluded from citizenship, they persist and form the foundation of vibrant Chinese American communities (with parallel migration and exploitative labor experiences across the Americas).*


European and US-settler prospectors, mostly White, flock to California during the 1849 Gold Rush, bringing disease, ecological destruction, and waves of genocidal violence against Indigenous communities. These events, followed by wars against Indigenous peoples throughout the West and Southwest U.S. (1849-1892), seed Indigenous resistance movements that continue into the 21st century.*

Elizabeth Blackwell (1st woman to get a medical degree in the United States, in 1849*) sets up the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children (1849); John Snow publishes On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849); Lemuel Shattuck publishes Report of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts (1850); founding of the London Epidemiological Society (1850); Compromise of 1850 retains slavery in the United States and Fugitive Slave Act passed; Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); Sojourner Truth delivers her "Ain't I a Woman" speech at the Fourth Seneca Fall convention (1853); John Snow removes the handle of the Broad Street Pump to stop the cholera epidemic in London (1854); James McCune Smith (1st African American to get a medical degree, awarded in 1837 by University of Glasgow) co-founds the interracial Radical Abolitionist Party (1855)*

* denotes entries added since the original list created in 1994 (version: 6/21/22)

Also see the following articles:

Coordinating Committee of Spirit of 1848 (Krieger N, Zapata C, Murrain M, Barnett E, Parsons PE, Birn AE). Spirit of 1848: a network linking politics, passion, and public health. Critical Public Health 1998; 8:97-103.

Krieger N, Birn AE. A vision of social justice as the foundation of public health: commemorating 150 years of the spirit of 1848. Am J Public Health 1998; 88:1603-1606.


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