83. szám // 2021. Tisztaság fél egészség?
Sanitary Conditions and Public Health Affairs in Miskolc in the Late Nineteenth Century
It is hard to maintain sanitation standards in crowded conditions. On the one hand, it must be decided whether maintaining cleanliness is the authorities’ or the inhabitants’ responsibility, on the other hand, the minimum standards must be specified. Throughout history, cities were never exactly known for their cleanliness, quite the contrary: even well into the nineteenth century, people in bigger cities faced nightmare conditions.
The study examines municipal sanitation conditions in a mid-size town in Hungary in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. This period is relevant here for two reasons: on the one hand, this was a time of progress in medicine, as the miasma theory was superseded by the new understanding of bacterial approach. After this paradigm shift, public health was no longer fighting visible dangers and this discovery changed common perceptions of cleanliness and health. The scientific breakthrough brought about significant changes in municipal governance as well, primarily in water use and sanitary regulations enforced in urbans spaces. On the other hand, the period is significant also because a major flood in August 1878 revealed the poor public sanitation and health conditions plaguing Miskolc. Partly for reasons of flood protection, but even more so on account of the much needed protection of public health, the leadership of the town pledged to push for a complete overhaul of the drinking water and sewage system. The study describes the prevailing public health conditions in the town and explores how both the new discoveries in pathology and the natural disaster’s role in unmasking the terrible sanitary conditions transformed the locals’ perceptions about cleanliness. It also addresses the measures that fostered this change as well as the challenges that they faced.