The mysterious Groninger disease of 1826

The current crisis is only the latest in a series of epidemics that have struck over the centuries. While researching a specific topic for a publication, ArtsTalk Magazine’s Kate came across articles about a mysterious disease that arrived in Groningen in northern Netherlands in 1826. It seemingly arrived out of nowhere and hit the city hard.


Groningen is both a province, as well as this province’s main city. We are talking Groningen town right now. You may be familiar with me describing exhibitions in its main museum: the Groninger Museum.

But of course, due to the Covid-19 pandemic: schools, university, museums and shops are now closed. Yet this is not the first time, Groningen has dealt with a lock-down due to an epidemic.

A mysterious epidemic

It seems, a mysterious epidemic erupted in the summer of 1826. Soon, it was called the Groninger ziekte or Groninger disease.

Sometimes it was also called ‘tussenpozender koorts‘, for the fever would suddenly flare up, then disappear, only to resume. This cycle continued for days; often till a patient died.

Like now, emergency hospitals were erected and medical personnel from all over the country were requested to assist. Doctors faced thousands of patients; while medical knowledge, or even awareness of hygiene was minimal. Groningen numbered about 30,000 citizens and 10% of them died.

At the time, everybody was mystified. What had caused this sudden epidemic? Now, it is linked to flooding of large parts of the province, followed by flooding of land around Groningen. This happened a few months before the mysterious disease erupted. The winter floods of 1825 -1826, were followed by a warm spring and summer.

Evacuation during the Walcheren campaign in 1809

So the mysterious disease is now linked to stagnant water, rotting vegetation and … mosquitoes. You may think malaria only occurs in very warm to tropical regions? In his novel Vanity Fair, Thackeray describes an English army invading another part of the Netherlands: the Walcheren Campaign, or expedition. A mysterious fever caused 10% of this army to die.

There is, however, another theory. Not flooded land, but flooding cesspits caused this Groninger disease. Drinking water was contaminated with sewage, resulting in a typhus epidemic. For in the early 19th century, what towns and villages had sewage systems? Before you start mentioning cholera, read on.

It seems Groningen has no memorials, nor art commemorating casualties of its mysterious disease. Maybe, because Groningen and other Dutch towns soon faced a pandemic.

The second cholera pandemic

With the mysterious illness claiming so many lives in 1826, people started to rethink church-burials. Doctors stated crypts in and cemeteries around churches within towns were disease hot-spots. Groningen university professor Theodorus van Swinderen convinced the council to create two new cemeteries outside town. These opened in 1827.

Just in time, for within a few years, a pandemic raged across the world. This second cholera pandemic lasted from 1826 to 1837. The first cholera pandemic did not reach Western Europe, but the second pandemic reached the Netherlands from Russia in 1832.

Once it was clear, Groningen was facing a cholera epidemic, doctors wanted a total lock-down. Its university did close and remained so for months. As for shops and trade: then as now, economic interests and financial costs ensured advice was ignored.

In the end, the municipality gave in – after the epidemic claimed lives. But cholera was ‘here to stay’. In 1849, a serious cholera epidemic started in the Netherlands, spreading to Belgium. In the Netherlands, this epidemic claimed 23,267 lives. In Belgium the death toll was 23,027. It was not even to be the countries’ worst cholera epidemic.

Not that people had not noticed some link between dirty water and this disease. But it took a paper by English doctor John Snow and republication of his research, for governments and municipalities the world over, to start building decent sewage systems.

These days, most people know what measures may prevent swamp fever, typhus, cholera. Though these diseases continue to claim lives. Right now, washing hands frequently, sneezing in the elbow, self-isolation and social distancing seem to be the best prevention against catching Covid-19. Kate Deni   April 2020

First published in KateEvents websites