Good and bad ideas from 1875’s “City of Health”

Hygeia, Montreal General Hospital

Hygeia, Greek goddess of health (shown, as she often is, with her father Asclepius’s magic pet snake)

If you could design a city to make disease impossible or at least rare, what would it look like? In 1875,  Benjamin Ward Richardson (inventor of several early anesthetics and a proponent of public health before it was cool) gave a speech describing his idea of utopia: Hygeia, he called it, A City of Health.

The speech was printed the next year, sold well, and lives for posterity on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere. It contains some really good ideas, but also some that now seem off-the-wall. Come with me as we tour the ideal of health in 1875.


Credit: Jon Doe

1. Sewers

In the city of health, toilets and storm drains alike empty into airy “subways,” or in other words, sewers. The design, only 20 years old at that point, was a wonderful way of getting human (and animal) waste out of cities. Unfortunately, since sewage wasn’t treated, the results were dumped into local waterways. So sewers just moved the problem.

(Even with treatment plants, combined sewers can still overflow and dump raw sewage where it shouldn’t go. This is an ongoing problem in many cities.)

OK to eat, but not to smell? Credit: Nicole Abalde

OK to eat, but not to smell? Credit: Nicole Abalde

2. No smelling any smells

Richardson was reportedly a holdout against germ theory, and through the whole speech he emphasizes cleanliness without getting specific about what you’re cleaning away.

Instead, he seems to be operating under the idea that smells (the technical term is miasma) are what transmit disease. After getting human waste into the sewers, we still have smells to contend with: for example, he directs kitchens to be built on the top floor, so that “the smell which arises from cooking is never disseminated through the rooms of the house.”

Flowery Wallpaper

Credit: William Warby

3. No wallpaper

Walls are to be made of glazed bricks, in any color you like. Just, for the love of god, don’t cover them in wallpaper. Wallpaper and its paste can harbor mold (yes, even today), but one other concern was surprisingly legitimate: wallpaper can be “poisonous.” One color in particular, known as Scheele’s Green, was made with huge amounts of arsenic. Pro: bedbugs died in green-wallpapered rooms. Con: Sometimes people did too.


Credit: Otis Historical Archives

4. Fresh air in hospitals

The hospitals of Hygeia would feature private rooms, central heating, and a holistic approach (“The still more absurd idea of building hospitals for the treatment of special organs of the body, as if the different organs could walk out of the body and present themselves for treatment, is also abandoned.”) Tucked into the description of the wards is something unusual and scandalously simple: a door to a garden, where patients’ beds can be wheeled on nice days.

Recent research shows that opening hospital windows admits germs–but there are germs everywhere, and those from outside may be healthier than the ones that build up in hospital ventilation systems.

5. And many more…

Need more ideas for your next model city? Don’t forget to ban alcohol, cover the floor of every room in gray tile, have flat asphalt roofs (but feel free to plant flowers up there), and outlaw private laundromats. Good luck!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Good and bad ideas from 1875’s “City of Health”

  1. Pingback: A Public Health Primer by Emma Crosby « Smart City Memphis

  2. JD says:

    It is interesting to note that around that era Public Health was viewed as (Big) Government intrusion, much as universal healthcare is often criticized now.

  3. Pingback: Good and bad ideas from 1875′s “City of Health” | Magazine On Health

  4. Pingback: Good and bad ideas from 1875′s “City of Health” | Health

  5. Pingback: Good and bad ideas from 1875′s “City of Health” | Health City

  6. Pingback: Good and bad ideas from 1875′s “City of Health” | Health Senses by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>