The Cambridge fever: the closure of Cambridge University during the Easter Term of 1815

During the Easter Term (April and May) 1815, the University of Cambridge effectively closed down as an undergraduate institution, in response to a local epidemic, loosely referred to as the "Cambridge fever". This essay explores the course of the outbreak, and examines the decision-making processes through which the University determined its responses. Reference is made to later health crises, such as the outbreak of typhoid at Gonville and Caius College in 1873. Some parallels are suggested with the challenge of 2020.







As the result of decisions made during April and May 1815, the University of Cambridge effectively closed down as an undergraduate institution, in response to a local epidemic, loosely referred to as the "Cambridge fever".[1] Cambridge remained in partial suspension for the remainder of the Easter (summer) Term, before moving into the usual aestivation of the Long Vacation.[2] The full rhythm of the academic year resumed in October, with the shut-down seeming to have caused no long-term impact.

The University had faced the need to suspend its activities on health grounds before. The Victoria County History counted 28 interruptions, apparently over the institution's first four and a half centuries.[3] During the prolonged closure of 1665, Isaac Newton of Trinity took refuge at his Lincolnshire country property, Woolsthorpe Manor. There, in his orchard, he witnessed an apple fall to the ground, and famously asked why it travelled downwards and not upwards. It proved to be one of the landmark moments in the history of scientific thought, and it happened when Cambridge was formally closed. However, 1665 was the last major visitation of bubonic plague, and the issue of suspending academic activities did not seriously recur for a century and a half. By 1815, the precedents and procedures that had regulated the once-familiar shut-downs were set aside. Worse still, the intervening years had seen the rise of a vocal newspaper press, both national and regional, which subjected the University's decision-making to its unsympathetic glare. The 1815 episode was not the only occasion in the nineteenth century when Cambridge was threatened by disease, although both Town and University were fortunate to escape any major epidemic. The 1873 outbreak of typhoid at Caius is discussed later in the essay to provide a contrast with the handling of the Cambridge fever.

It is important to note that the 1815 closure involved two distinct decisions, taken through wholly different processes. On 11 April, undergraduates were informed that it was deemed "not expedient" that they should return to Cambridge before 20 May. This was the determination of the Vice-Chancellor and the Heads of Houses – in plainer terms, the Masters of the seventeen constituent colleges.[4]  In practical terms, their authority was weighty, but in strict constitutional terms, their role was undefined and often informal. On 3 May, a further decree allowed undergraduates who had resided during the Lent Term to be credited with the Easter Term as well.[5] This was passed by the Senate, the University's officially constituted legislature. To qualify for a degree, undergraduates had to "keep" nine Terms for the Pass BA, and ten for Honours. This involved residing in College or approved lodgings for 49 nights within the longer period of the Term. Thus the 3 May decision in effect allowed the University to pretend that students who had been in Cambridge between January and March were also in residence during April, May and June. The 11 April postponement was a classic example of a decision taken without facing its implications. On the one hand, bringing undergraduates back to Cambridge after 20 May was largely pointless, since it would require them to remain well into the summer to notch up the required number of bed-nights, at a time when Cambridge conventionally shut down anyway. On the other, penalising them for their inability to keep a non-existent Term was hardly fair. Hence the University's formal legislative process was forced – with some reluctance reported in the Senate – to accept the implications of a policy dictated by an independent (and, in the strict sense of the word, irresponsible) group of decision-makers. The relationship between these parallel streams of authority is discussed later in this essay.


1814-1815: the wider scene The new Michaelmas (autumn) term at Cambridge would have begun in October 1814 in an upbeat mood. Four months earlier, the Treaty of Paris had ended two decades of almost continuous European war, pushing France back to its borders of 1792 and seemingly reversing the entire French revolution by re-establishing the exiled Bourbon Louis XVIII on the throne. An influx of wealthy British tourists had followed: Smithson Tennant, recently appointed professor of chemistry at Cambridge, headed off an extensive sightseeing tour, and was killed in a riding accident near Boulogne in February 1815. This swarming of travellers and soldiers needs to be borne in mind in assessing possible causes of the Cambridge outbreak early in 1815: the intermingling of British, Prussian and Russian armies could perhaps have spread infection in a manner similar to the explosion of Spanish 'Flu at the close of the First World War a century later. The winter brought more good news on the international front.  On Christmas Eve, British and American negotiators reached agreement in talks at Ghent on a peace treaty to end the War of 1812. News of its ratification of the terms by the United States Senate reached Britain in mid-March.[6] Since it is unlikely that any Americans studied at Cambridge in that era, it is unlikely that peace had any practical impact upon either the University community or its institutional finances.

The good news was balanced by an alarming development. As a consolation prize, Napoleon Bonaparte had been allocated Elba as a small island realm in the Mediterranean. It was not enough for his restless soul. On 11 March, The Times reported the invasion of southern France by "that wretch Buonaparte, whose life was so impoliticly spared by the Allied Sovereigns". By 24 March, Britain faced the unpalatable truth that the "abhorred monster" had taken control of Paris, and that he could only be stopped by renewal of war.[7] The local drama of the closure of the University was played out against the background of the Hundred Days. Bonaparte was defeated at Waterloo on 18 June. The University Senate's unanimous vote of an address of congratulation to the Prince Regent on 14 July may also be taken as a symbolic closure of the Cambridge fever crisis. I know of no evidence that any students freed from the obligations of residence took the opportunity to follow the Waterloo campaign at first hand, let alone to fight in the battle.[8]

Cambridge in the academic year 1814-1815 With 297 matriculations (new enrolments), 1814-15 promised to be a bumper year for Cambridge. Numbers had been steadily rising since a low point in 1799, when Cambridge had seen only 129 newcomers.[9] The reasons behind this trend are probably complex and possibly irrecoverable, but two points may be suggested. The first is that the increased enrolment could not have been attracted by any programme of dynamic reform within the University, since Cambridge was "a rather indifferent academy" that was resistant to change.[10] With hindsight, it is possible to perceive the stirrings that would inaugurate a phase of reform from about 1820, when new ideas and new buildings would lay the foundations for the future. Indeed, two of the key figures in those developments, the young geologist Adam Sedgwick and the ambitious Trinity College undergraduate William Whewell, were witnesses to and survivors of the Cambridge fever. But the gentle upheavals of the next decade could not have been visible to the intending customers of 1814. The increased numbers were much more likely to have resulted from growing prosperity among the expanding middle classes, some of whom wished to qualify their sons for access to more comfortable professions through the acquisition of a degree. Hence they were prepared to accept an eccentric curriculum, indifferent teaching and grasping demands for money, but they did insist on their offspring coming home alive. The second aspect of the rising trend in enrolments was that after decades of limping behind Oxford, Cambridge drew level with her sister institution and – from 1819 – would take the lead.[11] Again, the reasons seem mysterious,[12] but there can be little doubt that rivalry with and competition from Oxford was an unspoken element in academic decision-making when confronted with the mystery outbreak. Movement between the two universities – it was called migration – was frequent in that period, and seems to have required little more than the decision of individual students. As a general principle, Cambridge dons were rigidly resistant to public demands for reform, but they were undoubtedly sensitive to market forces.

It would obviously be useful to have a reliable figure for the number of students in residence during the Cambridge fever in order to assess how widespread was the infection. Unfortunately, I have seen no contemporary report of numbers in residence, and can only offer estimates. It is likely that in the Michaelmas Term there were no more than 700 undergraduates in Cambridge.[13] However, these included the "Questionists", fourth-year men who would sit for the University's sole Honours degree, the Mathematical Tripos, during January of the Lent Term. Most of these – 54 were classed in 1815 – would have left soon afterwards, meaning that the fever actually flourished among a slightly reduced student population.  Some Bachelors of Arts remained in Cambridge after graduation, to compete for prizes and fellowships, but there was nothing that could be termed a postgraduate community in the modern sense. Senior members – Fellows of colleges, Professors and a handful of officials – probably brought the total for the University community to around one thousand.[14] In one sense, the calculation is beside the point: contemporaries quoted separate death rates for the University and the Town, as if their populations moved on separate planets. Of course, they breathed the same air and drank the same water: in 1822, the Master of Trinity reckoned that fewer than one third of its 354 resident members lived in college.[15] Even if the University community alone is considered, much depends on whether emphasis is placed on the death toll or the likely rate of infection. The local medical community tended to argue that, with just eight student deaths, the outbreak had been recklessly exaggerated. However, if – as one report seemed to indicate – fatalities represented one in every 25 cases of infection, both serious and mild, then the fever may have struck one-quarter of the undergraduate population.

Decision-making processes: the Heads of Houses  Although Cambridge University was a relatively small organisation, its decision-making processes were complex, multi-layered and sometimes obscure. The student population was distributed among sixteen colleges, but more than half of them were at Trinity and St John's.[16] Within the colleges, Tutors exercised a large measure of independent authority, based on the fact that they were responsible for students' welfare, not their education.  As often happens within an institution where decision-making is fragmented, bold decisions taken by a couple of the component parts forced the pace by increasing the pressure on others to follow. In this case, by early April 1815, Tutors in the two largest colleges were ordering their charges to leave town. A University that might attempt to function without St John's and Trinity would have been a very truncated Cambridge indeed.

The practical independence of the colleges and their potentially pro-active role was reflected in an informal duality of decision-making within the structure of the University. It is suggested below that Cambridge operated something like a system of parliamentary government, with the Vice-Chancellor as a kind of prime minister, advised by a cabinet (the Caput) and submitting proposals to a legislature (the Senate). However, alongside this neat if sometimes arthritic machine, there existed a parallel form of decision-making in the form of edicts from the Vice-Chancellor and Heads of Houses (of whom, since 1587, the Vice-Chancellor himself was always one). Perhaps the closest modern parallel here is the European Union, which combines a core constitutional mechanism of a President backed by a Commission putting proposals to an elected parliament with a body comprising the EU President and the heads of government of the member states, currently styled the European Council. Of course, there are considerable differences between the twenty-first century heads of government and the nineteenth-century heads of colleges, not least because the first group is generally seen as providing the impetus for greater European integration, whereas the second showed a notable determination to resist all forms of change. From the point of view of understanding what happened in 1815, the most significant distinction between the two is that the European Council exists as a defined body, its role and procedures regulated by the Treaty of Lisbon. As a University reformer, George Peacock, had pointed out in 1841, sixteenth-century Statutes had constituted the Heads of Houses as a "distinct and separate estate in the government of the University".[17] But no formalised Council of the Heads had emerged in the governance of the University of Cambridge. The resulting scope for flexibility of response was dangerously unlimited.

In reality, the Heads functioned not so much as an estate as a caste. They socialised among themselves (and with the Professors), extending merely formal hospitality to the Fellows of their colleges and totally ignoring the existence of undergraduates. Even when endorsing so comically solemn an initiative as the University's appeal to abstain from eating pastry during a national flour shortage in 1800, the Heads still signed as a distinct category, below the Vice-Chancellor but ahead of other senior members.[18]  As the only College officials allowed to marry, their Master's Lodges frequently formed bizarre oases of fecund family life embedded in a wilderness of adolescence and celibacy. The last Cambridge figures to wear wigs, the Heads took themselves and their status very seriously. Indeed, with a few modest exceptions, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the office particularly appealed to authoritarian personalities. In 1830, the loyal and likeable Joseph Romilly was accused of "act of rebellion" by the Master of Trinity, Christopher Wordsworth, for supporting a proposal to change the hour of Hall dinner.[19]

The Heads of Houses were convened by the Vice-Chancellor to exercise specific collective powers. They were the assessors – jury and judge combined – in the court that could try any member of the University, senior or junior, for a range of offences, for which suspension from degrees, expulsion or even imprisonment were the sanctions. They nominated for election by the Senate candidates for the office of Vice-Chancellor, for most Professorships and for a range of lesser University appointments. This function in effect gave them enormous power: the Heads were required to submit two names for each vacancy, but nothing prevented them from coupling their own preferred nominee with an unsuitable or unpopular alternative, effectively dictating the electors' choice.[20] The Heads were also the arbiters of disputed interpretations of the University Statutes, a privilege which they were inclined to interpret very loosely. Thus, as discussed below, in 1804 they interpreted eligibility rules in the Faculty of Physic as barring local surgeon Frederick Thackeray from taking a medical degree. In January 1815, to meet the needs of a more acceptable candidate, the Heads baldly announced that the earlier verdict was "rescinded".[21] Yet, although their powers were extensive, the Heads do not seem to have been constrained by precise rules of procedure. It was generally assumed that the Vice-Chancellor and eight Heads constituted the minimum number to give force to an edict. William Frend, a radical member of Jesus College, was condemned in 1792 "with the assent of the major part of the Heads of Colleges". Martin Davy, Master of Caius and Vice-Chancellor in 1804, was so determined to exclude Thackeray that he used "many violent and offensive expressions" against the inoffensive William Craven, Master of St John's, who quietly opposed what Gunning called Davy's "iniquitous interpretation".[22] One complication was that Heads often held ecclesiastical preferments elsewhere and, sometimes, even absented themselves from Cambridge to attend to their duties: the Master of Trinity, William Lort Mansel, was remarkable for clerical multi-tasking, even managing to double-job as Bishop of Bristol for twelve years from 1808. Vice-Chancellors sometimes stalled major decisions during the absence of key Heads. It is noteworthy that they were never represented by deputies.

Precisely because the role of the Heads was undefined, they tended to make decisions which blurred the boundaries between collective college discipline and University policy. To protect undergraduates against unscrupulous local traders, they exercised the power of discommuning, banning undergraduates from dealing with the unreliable or the unprincipled. In 1822, no less a local dignitary than the Town Clerk was placed off-limits after it emerged that he had assisted two undergraduates to borrow money. Discommuning allowed the Heads to control particular forms of student behaviour, such as moves in 1837-8 to ban establishments where young men were encouraged to play billiards, and a similar thunderbolt in 1842 against boxing.[23] In 1844, the Heads issued the remarkable threat that they would discommune "any Inhabitant of the Town, engaged in any Trade or Profession" who ventured to sue an undergraduate for recovery of debt without having first consulted the man's Tutor.[24] Thirty years later, the adoption by Irish agrarian radicals of a similar technique, called boycotting, shocked respectable opinion as a violation of social decency. In fact, the 1844 edict did not survive a judicial arbitration a decade later.

The Town could attempt to resist its entanglement within the tentacles of the University, with very occasional success, but undergraduates had no such protection. In 1831, a public meeting of BAs and undergraduates was announced, with the intention of launching a petition against the Reform Bill. Cambridge dons were generally opposed to parliamentary reform, but the senior academic cadre was even more hostile to political activity by the young. Eight Heads of Houses backed George Thackeray of King's, serving his second term as Vice-Chancellor, in threatening disciplinary action against any undergraduate who attended the proposed rally, or any similar gatherings.[25] The meeting fizzled out.

An episode from 1842 is also revealing. A group of clerical busybodies complained to the University authorities that the Union admitted its members on Sundays to read newspapers. In 1817, the President, William Whewell, had defied Vice-Chancellor William Wood when he had invaded the debating chamber flanked by the proctors and demanded the society's dissolution. Now, a quarter of a century later, as Wood's latest successor in office, Whewell informed the Union that "it was the wish of the Heads that this practice should be discontinued".[26] The Union formed part of the University community, but it had no organic relationship with its institutional structure. The young Whewell had put down a marker, challenging the University's right to interfere with the activities of its members on private premises. Now, Whewell not only implicitly asserted that same right, but issued his demand in the name of the Heads, whose various statutory functions did not obviously apply in this case. As individuals, they might well have issued seventeen separate decrees banning junior members of their colleges from visiting the Union on the Sabbath. Instead, the Heads spoke collectively, in the name of the University. In long retrospect, perhaps the oddest aspect of this conventional assertion of authority lay in its widespread acceptance, even by a reformer like George Peacock. "There is, in fact, no other body of men in the university with whom the exercise of such powers could be so safely and advantageously lodged."[27]

Decision-making processes: the Vice-Chancellor, the Caput and the Senate No doubt it was precisely because of their informal existence that the Heads of Houses functioned effectively as the University's emergency response junta.[28]  Yet by the same token, their lack of collective statutory existence, except for specific and defined functions, limited their ability to make constructive changes in regulations. Since most of their edicts were of a prohibitory, thou-shalt-not, nature, this usually did not matter. However, in 1815 the decision to defer the effective start of the Easter Term until late May necessitated the taking of formal steps to ensure that undergraduates were not disadvantaged by their inability to complete the required period of residence. Only the Senate could authorise the requisite remedial measure, and its action was dependent upon the leadership of the Vice-Chancellor and the supervisory role of his advisory body, the Caput.

In the seventeenth century, any suspension of University activities seems to have been invariably authorised by the Senate through the passage of a Grace: Cooper records eight such occasions between 1603 and 1665.[29] Typical in the definition of the academic programme was the Grace of 10 October 1665, "discontinuing sermons at St Mary's and exercises in the schools, on account of the prevalence of the plague".[30]  The closure process could combine both forms of academic decision-making: in June 1642, a time of both plague and political instability, the Senate suspended activities "until the Vicechancellor [sic] and the Heads should again convene the University."[31] Thus the seventeenth-century pattern seems to have been for the Senate to break the mould, and the Heads to pick up the pieces – the inverse of the process in 1815. The simple background point was that bubonic plague did not give the institution much choice, however it chose to reach its decisions to close. In 1630-1, there were 347 plague deaths, in a Town and Gown population of around 11,000; in 1815, the Cambridge fever probably killed a few dozen out of a combined total of perhaps 12,000.[32] As a result, there was no sense of overwhelming imperative in 1815, and this highlighted the potential of the University's formal structure of government to frustrate change. While the individual colleges, though their Tutors, could make rapid decisions, and the Heads collectively might determine a flexible response, the central constitution of the University seemed deliberately designed, indeed fiendishly intended, to render impossible an urgent response to any crisis.

On the face of it, Cambridge's system of government combined the best features of parliamentary democracy and alumni participation. Its prime minister, the Vice-Chancellor, as advised by a five-member cabinet called the Caput, which put resolutions, called Graces, to a bicameral Senate which, in theory, comprised all Masters of Arts – in practice, any graduate who had paid the fee to take his MA four years after initial graduation.[33] Unfortunately, in practice, the system was notably less than ideal. Vice-Chancellors were drawn from the Heads of Houses. They held office for just one year, a burden that was more than enough for most incumbents, since it was customary to dump the job upon a relatively recently elected college head.[34] Thus Vice-Chancellors rarely had either the experience or the energy to be proactive on any issue, and this alone inhibited the institution's capacity for rapid response to crisis. Necessarily, they depended on the guidance of their predecessors in office, often conveyed through informal gatherings of the Heads in the vestry of Great St Mary's church after the University's Sunday service.[35] The Vice-Chancellor for 1814-15, George Thackeray, had only returned to Cambridge a few months earlier to become Provost of King's, after thirteen years teaching at the sister institution, Eton.[36] Not only was he new to both the offices he held, but in one crucial respect he was an inappropriate person to provide leadership in the Cambridge fever crisis. Pre-eminently, the University was an examining body, with almost all undergraduate teaching left to the colleges. But the scholars of King's claimed an ancient right of taking degrees without competing in the examination hall. "That beast of a Provost", as the mild-mannered Romilly once called him, rigidly refused to abandon the privilege, which was doubly objectionable since King's itself was a closed institution that accepted only boys from Eton. It was only after Thackeray's death, in 1850, that the anomaly was quietly removed.[37] At the moment when the University had to decide how best to discharge its responsibilities towards its students, its affairs were, at least nominally, guided by the head of the one college whose members were indifferent to the pressures of examinations.

The Caput consisted of three holders of doctoral degrees to represent the Faculties of Divinity, Law and Physic – the last of these being the University's small medical community – plus two Masters of Arts to speak for the Senate. In line with the principles of cabinet government (if accidentally), they were effectively chosen by the Vice-Chancellor, subject to ratification by a very small electorate.[38] Unfortunately, the parallel with Britain's Heaven-born constitution ended there. As an earlier edition of the Calendar had explained, the function of the Caput was "to consider and determine what graces are to be laid before the Senate, as none can be offered without first receiving their unanimous approbation; each Member having a negative voice."[39] It was here that the analogy with cabinet government broke down. If a member of the Caput wished to frustrate some course of action, the Vice-Chancellor could not secure his dismissal and replacement by a more complaisant associate. Two decades later, the Caput had become a byword for reaction among reformers, "the patrons of every antiquated absurdity, and the enemies of all useful reform".[40] However, the Caput and its veto did not become anathema to reformers until the 1830s, when it frustrated attempts to relax the requirement for graduates to assent to the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England.[41] Peacock noted in 1841 that "in very recent times... the power of public opinion has not been sufficient to prevent the capricious exercise of this power".[42] The Caput was probably not so regarded in 1815, largely because there was little pressure for change for it to frustrate. Nonetheless, its potential for obstruction was evident.[43]

Hence, the membership of the Caput in 1814-15 was of some importance, and helps to explain why the unusual and urgent decision virtually to close the University had to be referred instead to the Heads. Since the Senate had the right to refuse its sanction to any Grace, the two Masters of Arts may be regarded as drawn from, rather than representative of, their constituency. Peter Hinde, who had graduated in 1784, had probably been chosen to fill the senior MA slot because he was a Fellow of King's who could be relied upon to support his Provost. From the junior MA ranks, Robert Jefferson was a rising young academic who was perhaps unlikely to rock any boats. He had entered the University as a sizar (poor student) in 1803, and had recently become a Fellow of his college. More to the point, he was from Sidney Sussex, which was one of the smallest institutions in the University, and hence vulnerable to any sudden drop in enrolments. It was also located close to the King's Ditch, the open sewer which – as will be discussed below – was suspected as the possible origin of the Cambridge fever.[44]

The three Caput members drawn from the Faculties of Divinity, Law and Physic, all holders of doctoral degrees, must be regarded as tougher propositions.[45] By convention, the Caput member from the Divinity Faculty was also a Head of House, which in practice almost certainly meant a former Vice-Chancellor. Thackeray was fortunate in his nomination of Robert Towerson Cory, the Master of Emmanuel, where he is remembered in the college tradition as conscientious, unassertive and likeable – not qualities universally found among the Heads.[46] Cory had served as Vice-Chancellor in 1797-8, and was evidently seen as a safe pair of hands. When Davie of Sidney Sussex died in 1813 a month before the end of his year of office, Cory was elected formally to complete the term.[47] The Master of Emmanuel, then, was a good choice for the discreet provision of experienced support, without seeking to overawe the necessarily inexperienced Thackeray. In the pressured days at the start of the Easter Term of 1815, it was almost certainly of significance that his college was one of those affected by the Cambridge fever. Indeed, it was the death of an Emmanuel undergraduate early in April that helped convert a local problem into a national scandal, while the death of another, on 3 May, possibly swayed the Senate into abandoning the Easter Term altogether.

From the ranks of Cambridge lawyers, Thackeray had nominated James William Geldart of Trinity Hall to serve on the Caput. Recently (in January 1814) appointed Professor of Civil Law, he moved quickly to introduce, on his own initiative, written examinations for the LLB degree.[48] However, to identify Geldart as a reformer is not necessarily to assume that he would automatically agree to the suspension of the University in a crisis. Joseph Romilly once complained of his "impracticable obstinacy" over a technical matter, but that was over twenty years later, and even the most flexible of academics may occasionally take a stand on principle.[49] In fact, very few undergraduates studied Law – there were sixteen examination candidates in 1816 – and many of those came from Geldart's own college, which could presumably make its own arrangements for a brief period of remote study. It was not unusual for students planning to go to the Bar to enrol at one of the Inns of Court before graduation, which would have meant that some would have had alternative opportunities for study.[50] Most basically, the legal culture within which Cambridge operated was very different from that of the modern world. There would be no demands for judicial review of the University's decision-making processes, and little chance that students might sue for disruption of their education. Lawyers would presumably be consulted over any twenty-first century suspension of teaching, but they were hardly crucial in 1815.

John Thomas Woodhouse, the Caput member drawn from the Faculty of Physic, was the potential loose cannon of the University's central decision-making process. A Fellow of Gonville and Caius, he became regarded in later life as an eccentric, remembered for his enthusiasm for cock-fighting. He appears to have given up the practice of medicine around 1828, in order to concentrate upon painting. "His private character was not supposed to be exactly what is expected in a fellow ... of a college."[51] Much of this, no doubt, lay in the future, but Woodhouse does not come across as the most reliable person to help steer an institution through a major crisis. However, in December 1814, on the eve of the Cambridge fever, he had been elected to the post of physician at Addenbrooke's Hospital. In that capacity, he would be one of the three co-signatories to the declaration of 24 May 1815 that the epidemic was over.[52] Yet it is hardly reassuring that he played the crucial role of what would now be called expert opinion at the heart of the University's decision-making process. As a member of the Caput, Woodhouse would have been very likely to have vetoed any formal Grace to suspend the activities of the University. The Cambridge medical community, whether University-trained or the product of real-life hospitals, was insistent that the fever was a minor episode and in retreat. Woodhouse would have been under pressure from his professional colleagues to ignore both local academic concern and the outcry from the press across England that was based on a barely-veiled allegation that Cambridge medicine could not handle the crisis. The two key decisions, on 11 April and 3 May, can both be explicitly viewed as attempts to balance the strategic need to satisfy wider public (especially) parental opinion with the more specific tactical requirement of placating the local medics. If the crisis of 1815 highlighted the potential inflexibility of the University's formal decision-making process, it underlined the even more damaging shortcomings of its Faculty of Physic.

The weakness of Cambridge's medical faculty It might be thought that Cambridge had a double advantage over most comparable provincial towns in possessing both a public hospital and an academic medical faculty. Addenbrooke's, which had opened in 1766, was not formally part of the University, although in such a small town it could hardly function entirely independently. Its affairs were run by governors, a status that could be acquired by a one-off payment of twenty guineas, or an annual subscription of two guineas. The University, along with the Town and the County, nominated some ex officio governors, and around half the subscribers were academics. Governors as individuals could nominate patients for admission, while collectively they elected physicians and surgeons – six positions in all, reduced from ten in 1802.[53]  Although common practices at the time, neither procedure could be considered an ideal contribution to health care. Indeed, a recent history of Addenbrooke's has marvelled at the governors' choice of Woodhouse in December 1814 over the much more energetic John Haviland of St John's.[54] As with other contemporary hospitals, patients were warehoused as much as nursed, their symptoms treated with palliative balms concocted from such basic substances as camphor, rhubarb and sulphate of magnesia.[55] Opportunities for a medical education on the wards were hardly profound, and the scope for the integration of practical and theoretical studies was non-existent: no Regius Professor of Physic had delivered lectures for a century, and Sir Isaac Pennington, who had held the Chair since 1793, saw no reason to break the tradition. One key reason why medical studies were "in a very languishing condition" lay precisely in the fact that Cambridge was such a small town.[56] The teaching of anatomy relied upon the dissection of cadavers and, in the days before refrigeration, these rapidly became unusable through putrefaction. The United Kingdom's great cities – in particular, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London – generated a generous supply of pauper corpses, unclaimed, even unidentified, for the anatomist's scalpel.[57] Their busy gallows also provided the dissecting tables with interesting specimens – the bodies often of those who had been young and healthy until the moment the trapdoor had opened beneath them.[58] Haviland, who had studied both in Edinburgh and at Bart's in London, in effect bypassed the existing MB degree after he succeeded Pennington in 1817 by instituting a certificate of fitness to practise, which required resort to the London teaching hospitals or to Scotland. After 1830, there was more emphasis upon hands-on training at Addenbrooke's itself, and in 1841 the governors approved regulations for the formal enrolment of students.[59] However, these developments lay in the future, and may even have been hastened by the University's humiliating inability to satisfy public opinion that its medical competence could handle an outbreak of fever. As Searby commented, "no one would argue that even at its best eighteenth-century Cambridge medicine was the equal of Edinburgh".[60] When the new Downing Professorship of Medicine was established in 1800, the usual Oxbridge limitation was relaxed, so that "a gentleman of Scotch university may also be chosen".[61]

In the event, the new Downing Professorship of Medicine went to Busick Harwood (he would be knighted in 1806), despite the fact that he already held, and decided to retain, the Chair of Anatomy. Alone among Cambridge medics, Harwood might have commanded sufficient public confidence to radiate some assurance that the local medical community was in control of the 1815 outbreak. Ruthless in self-promotion, he combined the qualities that, then as now, turn a mere mortal into a celebrity – great wealth and a flamboyant manner, crowned by an exotic name.[62] He had made a fortune in India before launching into a second career in Cambridge. When the Town raised a chocolate-soldier Volunteer company in 1798, Harwood was the obvious choice for Captain.[63] The walls of his rooms in Emmanuel were covered with portraits of his friends. The display provoked William Lort Mansel, later Master of Trinity and Bishop of Bristol, into coining "a very lively but very obscene epigram", sadly unrecorded, about the relationship between patron and sitters.[64] In recent years, Harwood's louche reputation has been rehabilitated, with an emphasis upon his commitment both to training and research: his pioneering experiments in transfusion are regarded as important, although the profession's lack of understanding of blood groups unhappily rendered their results haphazard.[65] It was thus all the more unfortunate that Harwood died in November 1814, leaving Cambridge medicine to face national criticism without the glamorous prestige of Sir Be-You-Sick.[66]

There can certainly be no doubt that the Cambridge medical world of 1815 was ill-equipped to reassure public opinion. If, by some strange chance, a mystery virus had ravaged Greek verbs, the University could no doubt have mobilised the might of its classical scholarship to resist the scourge. Attacked by an unidentified and sometimes lethal fever, it was forced to rely upon a small and divided community of doctors, headed by a professor who saw no need to discharge a leadership role. There had been no love lost between Sir Busick Harwood and Sir Isaac Pennington, who had been elected Professor of Chemistry in 1773, moving up to the Regius Chair of Physic twenty years later. A public row between them in 1794 over Pennington's alleged neglect of his duties at Addenbrooke's, so Gunning claimed, led Harwood to overlook the commitments of his Hippocratic Oath and issued a challenge to a duel. Harwood's subsequent attempt to require candidates for medical degrees to secure a certificate of attendance at a course of professorial lectures was aimed at exposing Pennington's refusal, during his half-century Cambridge career, to take to the podium at all.[67]  Harwood once contemptuously remarked that if Pennington could descend into a patient's stomach with a lantern, he would still be unable to make an accurate diagnosis.  Lort Mansel, in a more publishable epigram, portrayed him a physician who won the admiration of his female patients more by the elegance of his handwriting than the content of his prescriptions.[68] On a rare occasion when Pennington did engage in some superficial medical research, on the prevention of smallpox, he managed to place himself in the obscurantist camp. "We are sorry to observe that Sir Isaac Pennington is one among a number of prejudiced persons in this town and neighbourhood against the providential discovery of Vaccination," observed the Cambridge correspondent of the Bury and Norwich Post in 1808. By the close of the eighteenth century, responsible medical opinion was persuaded of the advantages of vaccination. Since the treatment was resisted by the poor, who were the most vulnerable to the affliction, pressure developed across Europe for State intervention. Locally, Pennington was denounced by other practitioners as a reactionary "divorced from the realities of town life".[69] The Regius Professor of Physic would be notable for his silence during the episode of the Cambridge fever.

Perhaps the ultimate condemnation of the University's Faculty of Physic was the fact that the Town itself had been colonised by medics who had acquired their training elsewhere. Their success was not conducive to the establishment of a common professional front in a crisis (although both graduate and non-graduate practitioners played down the seriousness of the fever). The gulf between the two interests was vividly illustrated in the bizarre case of Frederick Thackeray, son of a local surgeon and himself a successful practitioner of the craft. In 1800, Thackeray enrolled at Emmanuel as a Fellow-Commoner (a privileged mature student) with the intention of taking the degree in Physic and thereby expanding his professional range. Four years later, he was debarred from taking his first examination by Pennington, who argued that the Statute required six years of full-time study, and that Thackeray, who had continued to practise surgery, was therefore ineligible. Pennington had worked on friendly terms at Addenbrooke's with Thackeray's father, "and yet, strange to say, the Professor had never hinted that there would be the slightest difficulty attendant on his son's taking his degree." The disputed Statute was referred to a meeting of Heads of Houses for interpretation.  They decreed that nobody could be a candidate for a medical degree who had, within the previous six years, had been "habitually engaged ... in the practice of any trade or profession whatever." Gunning roundly objected that "Thackeray [senior] had spared no expense in his son's education, and had sent him ... to Edinburgh, as well as to Paris, for the express purpose of ... acquiring that professional knowledge for which the University was confessedly an indifferent school". It would be more than symbolic that it would be Frederick Thackeray who led the call for compulsory vaccination. Put simply, the basic weakness of Cambridge medical training, its near-total divorce from practical issues, was elevated into an exclusionary principle.[70]

Thomas Verney Okes had settled in Cambridge around 1775. He described himself as "Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, London", and had probably qualified on the wards of one of the capital's major hospitals.[71] Okes was not a member of the University, but his bold intrusion into the academic den paid off.  His commitment to medicine could not be doubted – "constant attention to the duties of a fatiguing profession", as he called it – although this may have been connected to his fathering of an unusually large family: his nineteenth child, Richard, would succeed George Thackeray as Provost of King's in 1850. His medical practice had once extended as far out of town as Impington, four miles away, where he treated Elizabeth Woodcock, the woman who in 1799 miraculously survived eight days' incarceration in a snowdrift, although by 1815 he displayed no interest in the surrounding villages.[72] In 1810, showing more readiness to share his findings than his academic neighbours, Okes published a study of spina bifida. True, it was poorly received, with one reviewer recommending that the author should bestow "attention to style and arrangement proper to give force and character to his future productions."[73] Yet even if he lacked graduate polish, the presence, let alone the prominence, of an articulate non-University man in such a small community was likely to be disruptive. For instance, there was the episode of the discovery by the Professor of Mineralogy, E.D. Clarke, of an extinct species called the Jerboa Mouse. A disused well at Whittlesford near Cambridge yielded a large supply of miscellaneous rodent bones, which in Clarke's reconstructions became a kangaroo-like creature that had once hopped across the Cambridgeshire countryside. It was Okes who provided the alternative and infinitely more plausible explanation that Clarke had inadvertently connected the hindquarters of rats to the forepaws of mice.[74] Okes had quarrelled with Harwood,[75] and seems to have entertained a low opinion of other "medical brethren", as he archly called him. It was to this rivalry that we owe his published account of the Cambridge fever. In fact, he shared the general opinion that the epidemic had been exaggerated, and the resultant public alarm "in a great measure groundless". Perhaps bruised by the reception of his previous venture into print, Okes confessed himself well aware "that other individuals better fitted for the undertaking might have given the public the real history of this disease; but they have not done this".[76] Accordingly, it is through the eyes of Thomas Verney Okes that we must view the course and causes of the Cambridge fever of 1815.


The contours of the outbreak Okes reckoned that the 47 patients whom he treated during the outbreak represented "a very large share" of the total cases. (Since two of his patients died, and eight deaths were reported across the University, it may be that his "very large share" was in fact around a quarter.) Okes reckoned that the outbreak originated in the last week of January 1815, and subsided during March. However, 21 year-old Basil Anthony Keck, Scholar of Queens', had died in Cambridge on 28 December "of a fever".[77] Keck had matriculated in 1811 but not yet taken a degree. This makes it likely that he had remained in Cambridge over Christmas to prepare for the mid-January Senate House examinations for the Mathematical Tripos, a gruelling exercise that might well destroy a young man's health. Okes reasonably argued that fevers of various kind were endemic in a town of 12,000 people. However, there were few undergraduates in residence during 1815, and Keck's death may perhaps indicate that sickness had been building up, unnoticed, in Cambridge.

Okes tabulated 24 of his most serious patients, using numbers for anonymity – an understandable device, but one that prevents historians from establishing any link to colleges. He recorded four cases between 24 and 26 January.  Curiously, there ensued a three-week gap, followed by four cases on 21 and 22 February and ten between 24 and 27 February. In the academic community, this seems to have represented the peak. Okes saw no further new cases for a further ten days, and received just four between 9 and 31 March. Taken at face value, his table would tend to confirm the insistence of the Town's medical community that the outbreak had in fact subsided at just the moment when public panic set in. Unfortunately, this complacent interpretation overlooks two complications. The first is what may look like a standard epidemic curve may actually reflect the period in which most students were resident in Cambridge. In other words, there was no guarantee that infection would not break out again during the Easter Term when the young men returned. Second, the falling-away of new cases coincided with the handful of deaths, which were of course much more newsworthy: Okes lost one patient on 19 March, 22 days from his infection, and a second on 3 April, after 16 days of illness.

Okes produced his pamphlet at considerable speed alongside his regular workload, completing it for publication on 24 May – the day three senior University medics formally pronounced the Cambridge fever to be over.[78] He disclaimed any intention of forestalling "the publication of a more able statement", insisting rather that "this little tract may rather be the means of invoking its appearance". Since no such treatise emerged, we are lucky to have his account. However, its rapid production did mean that Okes took for granted that his readers would understand much that is now obscure –in particular, making it difficult to estimate the overall numbers infected in the outbreak on the basis of his information. For instance, many of his patients were also attended by physicians, to whom he made a perfunctory professional apology for discussing their cases. Presumably, the relationship between physician and surgeon was similar to that between general practitioner and consultant today – the more severe and persistent cases were referred for the contemporary equivalent of specialist care. However, this would not explain why almost half of the patients whom Okes saw were classified by him as mild cases. It is likely that there were many cases, even among the privileged ranks of academe, which did not come to medical attention. E.D. Clarke, the Professor of Geology, recorded his encounter with the fever. He had just begun his annual (and hugely popular) lecture series when he was "seized with it", probably contracted from his wife, who had fallen sick while breast-feeding their fourth child. He suffered "one hot fit which lasted thirty-six hours.... I am now slowly recovering," he wrote in an undated letter, "but many are dead."[79] He does not mention seeking medical advice. As already suggested, if we apply a simple multiplier of four to the 47 cases mentioned by Okes, thus matching his two deaths to the reported University total of eight, we should postulate a total of around 200 (i.e. 188) across the entire academic community. However, the infection rate may have been higher, while Clarke's "many are dead" probably also refers to the Town.

"The inhabitants of the town, at the same time, experienced their share of the illness," Okes noted, but he was vague about its impact. "As far as can be ascertained, it appears, that ten adults and some children died of the fever". Okes regarded it as "chiefly prevalent in the town among females about 19 years of age, and children from 1 to 7 years", but "not many of the young women had the fever fatally". He found it difficult to estimate juvenile deaths, because measles also took its toll. These comments were scattered throughout the pamphlet, recalling the complaint of that previous reviewer that the author needed to give more attention to "arrangement".

Fortunately, Okes did have some basic notion of the concept of excess mortality. An appendix allowed readers to compare figures for burials in the thirteen Town parishes between January and April 1815 with the similar period from 1813. (Although he did not explain the omission, Okes would have relied upon his readers recalling, with a shiver, that the winter of 1814 had been exceptionally severe, and that there had been great distress in Cambridge when the river froze, cutting off coal supplies.) The contrast was certainly stark: 136 burials in the first four months of 1815, compared with 89 two years earlier, an increase of almost 53 percent – although we must take on trust his implicit assumption that 1813 was an average year. The 47 excess deaths go considerably beyond the estimated figures of ten adults from the Town and eight undergraduates (and published obituary notices for students do not indicate their place of interment). Presumably most of the other 29 were youngsters, either felled by the Cambridge fever or so weakened by an attack that they succumbed to other childhood illnesses.

Having supplied the raw data, it is surprising that Okes did not attempt any analysis, despite the sharp internal divide that stared out of the figures. Six parishes along the Trumpington Street – Trinity Street axis accounted for just six extra burials in 1815. Running south to north, they were the parishes St Mary the Less (1), St Botolph (1), St Benet (2), St Edward (0), St Mary the Great (1) and St Michael (1).[80] By contrast, four parishes to the north and east recorded 27 additional interments: Holy Trinity (10), All Saints (6), Holy Sepulchre [the Round Church] (8) and St Clement (3). There was a further cluster of 13 excess deaths north of the river, in the deprived district of Castle End: St Giles (12) and St Peter (1). The key point here is that the four parishes that accounted for half the excess mortality lay close to the King's Ditch, which – as will be discussed below – was widely suspected (although not by Okes) to be the source of infection.[81] Only one statistic did not easily fit the King's Ditch hypothesis: St Andrew the Great, the parish church of Christ's and Emmanuel – both colleges associated with infection – reported only one additional burial over 1813. However, all of this was left for enquiring readers to disentangle for themselves. A few summary sentences would have pointed out these local concentrations of excess mortality within the Town. It seems curious that Okes did not bother to comment on the information that he had presented.

So far as epidemiology was concerned, the surrounding countryside might as well have been here-be-dragons territory. "The infection prevails alarmingly also in several villages round Cambridge", one newspaper reported in early April.[82] Okes also baldly noted reports that sick servant girls transmitted the infection when they were sent home. "It has been stated that their families in the country villages, to whom they were sent after being seized with the disorder, received the fever, and that many of them had it dangerously, and some of them fatally."[83] Nobody seemed to consider that some attempt to measure the impact of the Cambridge fever on the surrounding district might have thrown light upon the epidemic as a whole.

Information about the treatment of patients was also sketchy. Okes mentions such remedies as opium and laudanum, wine, "decoction of bark" and "tincture of cardomons", while instances of constipation were relieved by the traditional remedy of rhubarb. He seems occasionally to have resorted to the barbarous treatment of blistering, but it is something of a relief to read that one patient "shewed such marks of debility that the author dared not to bleed him".[84] From the point of view of a modern reader, the most sensible treatment lay in attentive nursing care. "During the course of the illness, the patient's linen and bed-clothes were very frequently changed, the face, hands, arms, and neck, were sponged three or four times in a day in tepid water, and the feet and legs at night were immersed in warmer water." The sole medical input into this regime was to specify the addition of vinegar to the water.

The sparsity of the description of the treatments applied by Okes may mask the significance of one major omission. Although he was a surgeon at Addenbrooke's, he made no mention of the hospital. The original statutes of 1766 had banned the admission of infectious patients. This was standard practice with all British hospitals: there was little that could be done to help those suffering from fevers, and it made no sense to mix them up with surgical patients. Isolation wards were added at Chester in 1783, and a purpose-built fever hospital opened at Manchester in 1796. The London House of Recovery admitted its first patients in 1802, and its supporting charity energetically fumigated and whitewashed houses in the poorest districts of the capital. Addenbrooke's was enlarged in 1822, but the governors only began planning to erect a 16-bed isolation unit in 1833: even then, pressure on funding meant that just four patients could be admitted at any time. Even if dedicated isolation facilities had existed, Addenbrooke's was simply not large enough to have coped with an outbreak like that of 1815: average bed occupancy was 30 in 1810, rising – presumably by cramming more patients into the same space – to 46 in 1820. Since most patients were incarcerated for around two months, there would have been neither the capacity nor the flexibility to respond to emergency demand.[85] There would have been no call to Okes to explain any of this to his readership; they would have appreciated that a Town hospital did not treat fever patients. But two centuries later, we need to recognise that his student patients must have been treated in their college rooms and lodgings, the location specified in several death notices.[86] This would have meant that, in addition to incurring medical fees and expenses, they would have required individual nursing and laundry services. Few Town families could have possessed the cash to command the services of qualified practitioners, or possessed the space to provide the kind of intensive care they would prescribe. That may be why so little was recorded about the impact of the fever among the local population. Overall, the 24 May declaration by three members of the Faculty of Physic that the outbreak was quelled, issued over their signatures as "Physicians of Addenbrooke's Hospital", was a little disingenuous. As medical practitioners in the Town, they were certainly entitled to make the announcement, but implicitly invoking their hospital status was misleading.

The Cambridge fever: causes There is a sense in which the nature of the Cambridge fever is irrelevant to this study, which focuses upon the University's response to public concern and its decision to send undergraduates home.  However, the causal theories advanced at the time presumably influenced the decision-making process. It is also worthwhile measuring how effectively the University handled the issue against the generally established modern interpretation that it faced an outbreak of typhoid. Unfortunately, medical science had not yet identified typhoid, let alone worked out what caused it.[87] The term 'typhoid' was occasionally used from 1800, but adjectivally, its '-oid' suffix denoting a fever that resembled typhus, a sickness spread by lice.[88] Okes insisted that, in four decades of practice, he had "never known Typhus to be prevalent in Cambridge". Anxious to assert the salubriousness of the town in which he practised, he can certainly be exonerated of any charge of magnifying the problem in order to acquire additional resources or increased personal importance. Unfortunately, his testimony was weakened by two defects. First, he tended (no doubt like most contemporary medics) to follow the Humpty Dumpty principle of diagnosis: a disease meant what he chose to call it. Second, he subscribed to the miasmatic theory of infection, that sickness was spread by impurities in the atmosphere. Here, again, he resembled everyone else in his profession, since germs would not be discovered until the work of Pasteur paved the way to the identification of harmful bacilli: hence his insistence that "the Town of Cambridge boasted of the purity of its air, and the health of its inhabitants."[89] Forcing the evidence through the straitjackets of his own perceptions, Okes performed some remarkable intellectual contortions to avoid what may seem to posterity to be obvious deductions about the nature and causes of the Cambridge fever. It is worth noting that some of the most important work on the definition and causes of typhoid was undertaken not at a medical research institute or even a teaching hospital, but by William Budd, a country doctor in Devon and begun during his first year in practice in the late 1830s.[90] Budd evolved his understanding by posing simple questions about person-to-person contacts and sources of drinking water. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that an opportunity to pursue similar enquiries was lost, indeed spurned, in the Cambridge outbreak of 1815.

Two theories advanced at the time influenced the University's response to the local epidemic. One suggested a connection with Walcheren Fever. In 1809, a British expeditionary force to the Dutch island of Walcheren was overwhelmed by sickness. Since French troops on the island also suffered losses, while the local Zeelanders presumably dwelt in their polders in happiness and health, it was assumed that Walcheren Fever was something that "attacked only temporary residents, to the exclusion of the native population".[91] From this, the parallel was drawn – incorrectly, as Okes pointed out – that the Cambridge fever was a similar phenomenon, the outsiders in this case being undergraduates. It was not surprising that a medical crisis from just six years before should have influenced public attitudes to the outbreak. The Walcheren disaster had led to a duel between two leading politicians, Canning and Castlereagh. It was notorious that Peninsular regiments that had served on Walcheren continued to be weakened by sickness. However, modern medical historians argue that Walcheren Fever was not a single disease at all, but probably a combination of dysentery, malaria, typhoid and typhus. The key issue was not so much the prevalence of infection, but the Army's inability to contain and combat it, a deficiency variously attributed to failure to involve the Medical Corps in top-secret invasion planning, or more generally to the inability of military medicine to cope with multiple infection. Parallels between the two areas were also exaggerated: Okes complained that "persons unacquainted with the place, have actually believed Cambridge to be surrounded with stagnant water". In reality, reclamation for agriculture meant that "there is not what was formerly described as a fen, to be found within some miles of the town."

The recent memory of Walcheren Fever influenced reactions to the Cambridge outbreak in several respects. It ought to have been possible to contrast infection rates, by pointing out that, at its height, more than half the soldiers were out of action, as against an uncalculated but probably much smaller percentage of undergraduates. However, this would have ignored a basic point that Walcheren Fever took three months from its initial appearance to the peak of its carnage. Cambridge medics evidently argued that the small number of deaths in early April represented the final kick of a receding sickness. Wider public opinion was more likely to take alarm at the possibility that a small outbreak in February might climax in widespread mortality by May. The marked lack of interest in Town cases and near-total lack of awareness of the situation in the nearby countryside increased the focus upon the student population: hence Walcheren Fever transmuted into the admittedly less defined Cambridge fever. The 'outsider' hypothesis could only add to the pressure to conclude that it was "not expedient" for undergraduates to return to residence in April and May 1815.

The second theory that was understandably popular at the time may be termed the King's Ditch hypothesis, especially in relation to "the particular Colleges where this fever was most prevalent."[92] Okes roundly rejected any connection. "A very ancient Sewer called the King's ditch, mostly covered up, traverses a part of the Town where those Colleges are situated". In the sixteenth century, "when a part of the common was added to the land around one of those Colleges, a dyke was cut as branch of the King's-ditch in order to inclose it." The college was Jesus, the original epicentre of the outbreak, and the line of the ditch still forms the southern boundary of Jesus Green. However, Okes insisted that the dyke was "at a considerable distance" from the college buildings. Moreover, "no instance has occurred, since the grant of land was made, of its being attended with any deleterious consequences; unless indeed, and this is highly improbable, it became so for the first time in the present instance. Individuals have passed their lives within the walls of those colleges, who never suffered an attack of the sort of fever to which allusion is now made." Thus to Okes, it was "extremely difficult" to imagine how the King's Ditch could have caused the Cambridge fever.[93]

We may suspect here a case of exaggerated protestation in the face of inconvenient facts. There was no evidence to support his assertion that, "after mature deliberation" of the cause of the outbreak, he was "very far from imagining it to have originated from local circumstances".  He might, for instance, have asked why there was apparently no fatal case of fever at Sidney Sussex, the nearest neighbour to Jesus, where the King's Ditch had been covered over by the end of the eighteenth century.[94] Indeed, the careful reader will observe a strategic change of gear in the midst of his strident dismissals. It appeared that the King's Ditch was being cleaned up, "under the bare possibility that it may have originated such a malady  ... and every means made use of to prevent any accumulation within those Channels; and as the communication with the river [Cam] is short and immediate, this cause of malady, if it ever existed, will be effectually done away." It was surely strange to go to such trouble if the King's Ditch could not possibly have caused the Cambridge fever.

Okes stretched credulity in asserting no denizen of a college adjoining the King's Ditch had ever contracted fever. In 1574, the Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Perne, had conventionally attributed an outbreak of plague to "our synnes", but added that "the secondarie cause and meanes" was "not the corruption of the ayer" but the arrival of an already infected Londoner. "The other cause, as I conjecture, is the corruption of the King's ditch the which goeth thorough [sic] Cambridge". Perne intended to launch a clean-up "especially in those places where there is most infection", but he hoped to go beyond short-term remedial action. His scheme was to bring water from the hills south of Cambridge "to the King's Ditch, for the perpetual scouring of the same, the which would be a singular benefite for the healthsomnes both of the universitie and of the Towne".[95] Half a century later, Thomas Hobson turned Perne's project into reality.

To Okes, the Hobson's Conduit water supply helped prove the "health and cleanliness" of Cambridge. "The two principal streets have rapid currents of the purest water constantly running through them". This claim was illogical: gutters of clean running water in Trumpington Street were no guarantee of healthfulness in Jesus Lane. But more remarkable was the failure to examine the relationship between the water supply and the King's Ditch. Primarily intended to delineate the boundary of the medieval town, the King's Ditch could not function as a continuous moat, since it crossed a slight watershed at the site of Barnwell Gate, which had stood between Petty Cury and the church of St Andrew the Great.[96] Hobson's scheme fed water directly into the King's Ditch under Mill Lane.  Branches carried supplies to Pembroke College, Market Hill and the Red Lion Inn. Much of this would eventually have drained back into the south-western section of the King's Ditch. Water was also supplied to ponds at Christ's and Emmanuel Colleges. The system was stretched by this point, and there was probably little run-off, which may help to explain why there were fever cases in both. Between Christ's and Pembroke, the King's Ditch ran through open ground that would later be developed as the New Museums Site, home of the University's science departments, and was in any case covered. By contrast, the northern section could only be cleansed by its "short and immediate" connection with the Cam, as Okes hoped, if the river could be persuaded to run backwards and slightly uphill.[97] His excess mortality comparison between 1813 and 1815 strongly suggested that the parishes adjoining the northern stretch of the King's Ditch were those most subject to the epidemic. A simple process of deduction, surely to be expected from someone who had worked in the town for forty years, might have made a breakthrough in understanding the origin of the Cambridge fever.

Overall, Okes produced an analysis that was not only miasmatic but myopic. William Budd's alternative evidence-based approach helped understand the nature of typhoid by posing basic questions and making simple observations. By contrast, Okes presented data but declined to explore its implications. "The winter had been unusually mild," he remarked, "... the mercury in Farenheit's [sic] thermometer was remarkably high".  He tabulated meteorological observations collected at the University Library. Between 29 January and 26 February, there was only one day of rain. Temperatures were indeed balmy for mid-winter, around 47 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 9.4 Celsius) from 4 to 19 February, rising to 51 and 52 degrees (10.5 to 11.1 Celsius). Fourteen of his patients had fallen ill between 21 and 27 February. It did not occur to him to speculate that there might be a connection between the unseasonably warm, dry weather and the sudden peak of infection.[98]  In his attempt at patient profiling, Okes was also perfunctory, and he evidently saw no point in contact tracing. His statement that "the fever was almost entirely confined to Students about twenty years of age" was a particularly unhelpful categorisation within a population of undergraduates almost all of whom were just emerging from their teens. No doubt he was justified in adding that they were "not men particularly similar in their habits, nor were they particularly alike in their constitutions." One of the few pronouncements about the nature of the fever to emerge from the Cambridge medical community was the insistence by the Addenbrooke's surgeons, in declaring the outbreak over in May 1815, was that "as far as we have been able to observe, the feverish complaint which has sometime back prevailed here, was not of a contagious nature."[99] If the Cambridge fever was typhoid, they were probably correct, but their claim almost certainly stemmed from the fear that it was in the interests of neither the Town nor the University to accept the possibility of person-to-person transmission.

One intriguing coincidence should be explored here: February 1815, the month of the outbreak, also saw the launching of the Cambridge Union. On 13 February, an inaugural meeting merged three existing essay-reading clubs into a new student debating society. When the Union held its first debate one week later, 68 members voted – something like one-tenth of the student population. In three further debates to 13 March, up to 75 members took part in each division.[100] In a nostalgic reminiscence decades later, Monckton Milnes described the Union as meeting in "a low, ill-ventilated, ill-lit, gallery at the back of the Red Lion".  Is it possible that the University's oldest student society was unwittingly responsible for the Cambridge fever? Milnes recalled the Union of the late 1820s, when debates were evidently being held in what would now be called the function room of the Red Lion. William Selwyn, a slightly older veteran, remembered "a dingy room in Petty-cury", and other clues suggest that the Union held its first debates in an upstairs apartment of the Red Lion that doubled as its newspaper reading room.[101] But even if we cannot associate the term "ill-ventilated" with the meeting of 20 February 1815, we still have a large number of young men declaiming and cheering in a confined space. Yet, on balance, it seems unlikely that the Union was a source or even an accelerator of infection. The Union was very much a project of Trinity and St John's; the Cambridge fever took root in smaller colleges. A month later, William Whewell, who was almost certainly a member from the outset, knew of no one who was ill. Most persuasive of all is the absence of any contemporary comment linking the two. Donnish opinion can hardly have been enthusiastic about the establishment of a student society that discussed political issues. Four years earlier, a move by Evangelical undergraduates to establish a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society had provoked a minor crisis, and two years later the Vice-Chancellor would insist on the banning of debates.[102] If disease had swept through the Union's founder members, somebody would have pointed to the wrath of God, even if infection theory had continued to elude discovery.

The Cambridge fever: public reaction It was a paradox of the Cambridge fever that at the point when new infections seemed to fall away, patients began to die. In fact, the coincidence is explicable. There is no evidence that any of the undergraduates entrusted to Okes suffered from pre-existent or underlying health problems. Most of them were simply young men who were seriously ill for three to four weeks before mustering the strength to recover. Two failed to do so.[103] In any case, the number of potential victims was reduced during March, as Tutors ordered students to leave Cambridge, and the University moved into the quieter times of the Easter Vacation. Naturally, the press found death more newsworthy than recuperation. A bombastic attempt at reassurance made on behalf of local doctors at the end of March rebounded, revealing a widespread lack of confidence in the quality of Cambridge medical training.

It did not help that the first victim was not an undergraduate, but a promising and personable young academic. For all its arid curriculum and arcane rituals, Cambridge did provide brilliant young middle-class men with opportunities for advancement. John Alty was the son of the steward (estate manager) at the Earl of Derby's Lancashire property, Knowsley. It was probably Derby family influence that had him elected as a foundation scholar at Eton in 1805, an opportunity which he did not embrace. Rather, he completed his preparation for Cambridge at Manchester Grammar School, entering Jesus College in 1807. He graduated in 1811 as Fourth Wrangler, an unusual achievement for his college. He had recently been elected to a Fellowship when he died on 10 March 1815.[104] A memorial in the college Chapel spoke of his outstanding personality, his handsome and virile appearance and his skill as a teacher of mathematics. We may make allowances for the fact that Latin inscriptions encouraged elegant enthusiasm, but there can be no doubt that his death was a tragedy. He had recently become engaged, and was using his Fellowship to train for a new career by reading for the Bar. His death, "after a very short illness", was widely reported.  As his memorial noted: "febri correptus decessit" – he died quickly of fever. The register of Manchester Grammar School added that his death at the age of 25 prematurely ended "a career which gave promise of future distinction".[105]

Two more deaths soon followed at Jesus. Charles William Atkinson was the eldest son of a Norfolk clergyman who double-jobbed as an ecclesiastical lecturer in the Yorkshire town of Bradford. In his second term at Cambridge, Charles died on 17 March "at his lodgings in King-street".[106] Samuel Burroughs, a second-year student from Hertfordshire, died two days later. One report specifically attributed his death to "the typhus fever".[107]

Disease had also broken out at Emmanuel, where a third-year undergraduate, Francis Broadbelt Millward, died on 18 March. Millward was a Fellow Commoner, a student who paid higher fees for additional privileges and status. Emmanuel in that era had a reputation as "a very idle, though a very gentlemanlike, college": losing a wealthy student was bad for business. A second-year undergraduate, Charles Wade Gery, son of a Bedfordshire clergyman, died the following day. Elected to a Scholarship the previous year, he was nineteen years of age.[108]

Not surprisingly, alarm bells became to sound. "We are concerned to state that a malignant fever has for a fortnight prevailed in Cambridge," the Stamford Mercury announced on 24 March, "and has occasioned many gentlemen to leave the University for a time." Five days later, the Hereford Journal was more specific, reporting that "the typhus fever still continues at Cambridge, three or four more sudden deaths having occurred in Jesus College, and some others, within the last four days." "Dreadful typhus fever raging at Cambridge" was the brief note in the Chester Chronicle on 31 March.[109]

Writing to his father from Trinity College on 22 March, third-year undergraduate William Whewell made light of the epidemic. Although his personality was certainly not drenched in the milk of human kindness, Whewell was probably trying to offer reassurance, possibly in response to concern expressed by his family back in his native Lancashire. "There is, indeed, a fever of some kind or other in Cambridge, and several gownsmen have been ill of it," he acknowledged, but there had been only six or seven deaths within the University population since Christmas, "and of those I believe two or three have been carried off by other disorders." Several students were currently sick, "but not one of my acquaintance .... I believe not one man of Trinity or St John's has taken it". The outbreak was "confined to one or two small colleges; Jesus College in particular, which some physicians, I understand, attribute to the stagnant and putrid waters in its neighbourhood."[110] 

Whewell's harsh attitude of unsympathetic dismissal apparently reflected the inept complacency of the Town's medical profession. However, it commanded little respect when trumpeted to the public at large, as was shown when local surgeon Henry Headly decided to issue his own authoritative statement to combat "mischievous and unfounded reports" about the situation in Cambridge. Headly's decision to put himself forward is puzzling. He seems to have been a relatively young man, and a marginal figure among local doctors. The assertive statement that he persuaded The Times to publish on 31 March may have been a brash attempt to fill the leadership vacuum in the notably taciturn ranks of the Cambridge medical community. "Many cases of remittent and low nervous fevers" had occurred in the Town, he acknowledged, especially in two colleges, "and four deaths having taken place unfortunately in a short interval, much alarm and unfounded rumours have been spread." However, there was "no doubt" that the outbreak should be blamed upon "a morbid constitution of the atmosphere generally", not "peculiarly endemic to Cambridge" but "aggravated by unfavourable local situation" (presumably Whewell's "stagnant and putrid waters"). "The tutors have very properly recommended gentlemen to leave Cambridge for two or three weeks; and I am happy to add, the disposition of the disease appears to have nearly subsided."[111]

It was probably the egotistical quality of Headly's presentation that triggered resentment. True, some journalists were persuaded that the emergency had been unfairly reported. The Leeds Intelligencer on 3 April was critical of newspapers that had published "a most exaggerated account" of the outbreak. "We are informed that, not above seven or eight persons have died of this fever ... both in the university or the town" – nothing to get excited about "in a population of so many thousand persons". It was reassuring to know "that lectures in the colleges will commence about the 20th of April, for the ensuing term". The Leeds Mercury drew upon a similar report (which seems to have originated independently of Headly): the fever had been "in most cases mild, and confined to three or four of the smaller Colleges". The academic round would continue as usual, with "no interruption to the public business of the University". College teaching would resume as normal with the new term. Unfortunately, events shattered this complacency. On 8 April, the Leeds Mercury quietly disavowed its earlier stance: a report from Cambridge three days earlier had labelled the sickness as "Typhus Fever" and reported that four patients were "dangerously ill".[112] Closer to Cambridge, editors do not seem to have been taken in at all by the local elite's publicity offensive.

The problem was that young men were still dying. Particularly shocking were the deaths of two brothers from Emmanuel, seventeen-year-old Edward Burroughes on 1 April and, forty-eight hours later, his 22-year-old brother James, who had just taken high Honours as Seventh Wrangler in the Mathematical Tripos.[113] Their joint death notice appeared in The Times on 11 April, the day the Heads decided to delay the return of undergraduates to Cambridge.  Even the most insensitive of dons would have grasped that the particular poignancy of this tragedy would be unfavourably received by public opinion. Also alarming was a death at third college. On 1 April, "at his chambers" in Christ's, a nineteen-year-old freshman from Lancashire, Joseph Wilson, fell victim to "the malignant fever which has for some time been prevalent there". He was buried in the nearby parish church of St Andrew the Great, where a memorial plaque described him as "a young man of amiable disposition, engaging manners and promising talents."[114] Far from having "nearly subsided", as Headly had claimed, the Cambridge fever seemed poised to scythe through the undergraduate population that was shortly  due to return for the Easter Term.

In later life, it was said of William Whewell that omniscience was his foible. But when he wrote home again on 4 April, he found the situation uncertain and unsettling.[115] "I am not able to ascertain whether this fever increases, but the alarm certainly does."  St John's and Trinity now contained "some invalids whom the physicians assert to be ill of the fever". Whewell's attitude of detached scepticism had been shaken two days earlier when a Trinity man had been taken ill, "and, as luck would have it, at the foot of my staircase." Whewell would become such a towering figure in the nineteenth-century Cambridge that it is easy to forget that he was just twenty at the time, the age of the typical undergraduate fever victim in the Okes profile. The threat that he chose to play down to his family becomes all the more real as we put identities to those who had died. Like himself, John Alty came from a modest background in Lancashire, and had charted the strategy of using brilliance at mathematics to lay the foundations of a career. On 4 April, Whewell may not have heard of the death of James Burroughes the previous day, but given the superheated competition that surrounded the top places in the Mathematics Tripos, he was probably aware of the identity of the Seventh Wrangler and may even have known him by sight.

Writing twelve years later, another member of Trinity, J.M.F. Wright, added another perspective on the episode of the Cambridge fever.[116]  There is a Munchausen quality about Wright's memoirs – for instance, he claimed to have supplied the Vice-Chancellor, James Wood, with the dossier that influenced him to ban the debates of the Union in 1817 – and his evidence is more notable for sarcasm than strict accuracy.[117] He mocked the alarm caused by the outbreak, taking the view that there was "nothing extraordinary" about a small number of students paying the price for "indulging in every excess" – an unfair and probably unfounded assessment contradicted by the statement of Okes that his fever patients were not "particularly similar in their habits". Wright's flippant tone is well conveyed in his account of the panic: "after two or three Gownsmen had gone aloft, the parents of the rest fell into such a fluster as threw the whole kingdom into a fermentation. Letters by loads reached the tutors of all colleges, instantly demanding, dead or alive, the restoration of their offspring". Of more value is his testimony to the fears of tradesmen in the Town that they would lose thousands of pounds from the absence of their undergraduate customers. Not surprisingly, they subscribed to conspiracy theories to dismiss the validity of the local crisis. John Newby, Trinity's chapel clerk, who was also a local coal merchant, advanced a particularly far-fetched explanation. While admitting that some undergraduates had died, he alleged that "the 'Cambridge Fever' was got up by a knot of gay men, so inextricably involved in every way with the authorities, that had not the whole University been Rusticated [temporarily exiled], they themselves must have been Expelled." Newby's job as chapel clerk was to register the compulsory attendance of undergraduates at services. Although the term "gay men" only came to refer to homosexuals during the later twentieth century, Newby's need to know each student by name appears to have caused him to become an authority on their sexuality as well.[118] His reported explanation of the Cambridge fever episode was monumentally nonsensical, but has the classic quality of a conspiracy theory of appearing to hint at some unspecified but widespread scandal.

Adam Sedgwick, a young Fellow of Trinity, had good reason to feel the "alarm" to which Whewell referred, having narrowly survived an attack of fever at Cambridge in 1804. As a geologist – and one of the founders of the modern discipline – he had every incentive to retreat to his home town of Dent in the rock-strewn Yorkshire Dales. "The escape of Bonaparte from Elba was not more sudden than my flight from Cambridge," he wrote in late May, explaining why he had abandoned his initial intention to remain in Trinity. "The death of six or seven members of the University during the latter part of the Lent term excited so much apprehension, that the walls of many colleges were quite deserted in the vacation. About the beginning of this term two men, one of Christ's and the other of Emmanuel, died the same morning. The fever also began to make its appearance in our College, which till then had escaped all contagion." Sedgwick admitted that he was among those "who were persuaded to scamper off, without having time to give notice of their departure."[119]

As a third-year undergraduate, Whewell ranked low in the Cambridge hierarchy, but even he could foresee two problems looming early in April 1815. The first was whether the Easter Term would go ahead: "the colleges are clearing as fast as possible. At St John's, all the men are, I believe, obliged to go down, and at our college [Trinity] the tutors recommend it so strongly that it comes to nearly the same thing." Headly had spoken approvingly of tutors sending their pupils away for two weeks. During vacation-time, only a minority of high-flying students would have been in residence anyway, but what would happen in the third week of April, when the new Term was due to stagger into life? Would the Tutorial exclusion orders become open-ended, and would undergraduates be compensated by some relaxation in residence requirements? "It is yet undetermined whether the next term will be given us without residence, and consequently how long we may be allowed to stay away from Cambridge," Whewell wrote. It remained to be seen whether the University's formal decision-making processes would respond to these challenges.

It was at that delicate moment that two of the weakest aspects of the University, its leadership and its medical education, came under fire.  On 5 April the Bury and Norwich Post published a caustic paragraph. "It appears very extraordinary, in a place where the interests of so many families are involved, that the Heads of Colleges should not, for the satisfaction of the public, have caused an enquiry to be made into the state of health of the University, by some of the most eminent of the faculty in the kingdom". The term 'faculty' clearly meant 'profession', and was not used in its narrower academic sense. The Bury and Norwich Post believed that such a report "would tend to allay the alarm which has been so much excited from the fever which has recently proved so fatal to several of the students" – although, of course, that comfortable assumption would depend upon the nature of the expert findings.[120] Two days later, an equally fiery item appeared in the Stamford Mercury. "Notwithstanding the statements to the contrary published by interested individuals, the fever at Cambridge continues to be fatal, both in the colleges and in the town, although the former are now almost wholly deserted." In a rare allusion to the surrounding countryside, the paper added that sickness "prevails alarmingly also in several villages round Cambridge." The Stamford Mercury confidently predicted that "the Heads of Colleges are expected to call in the most eminent physicians of the kingdom to confer with them", since the local medics had demonstrated "that they are unacquainted with the true nature of the disease".[121] Henry Headly's professional colleagues would have had reason to regret his haughty intervention.

A modern University might perhaps ride out criticism from local newspapers in two small country towns. But the media landscape was different two centuries ago. Outside London, the daily press hardly existed. Most respectable families relied upon some weekly regional newspaper. Copies were passed among households, giving them readerships much larger than their basic sales, and extending the impact of stories for several weeks beyond publication. Both the Bury and Norwich Post and the Stamford Mercury circulated throughout wide hinterlands. The latter seems to have possessed some special status, perhaps derived from its very early establishment, back in 1695, but possibly also based on the town's strategic location on the Great North Road, where news could be assembled from all over the kingdom. It seems to have penetrated to the remotest corners of the United Kingdom. As late as 1852, when Ireland had acquired both railways and its own daily newspapers, an English tourist checked into an inn at Ballinrobe in County Mayo to find that the establishment had just taken delivery of a copy of the Stamford Mercury, dated eighteen days earlier.[122] Even if the two publications had not possessed any special geographical outreach, their criticisms were sufficiently pungent to merit polite pirating by other editors, in the case of the Stamford Mercury's scornful attack up to two weeks later. Independently of the newspaper press, rumours (some of them all too accurate) were efficiently spread by mail: it was a letter from Cambridge, written on 5 April and received two days later, that caused the Leeds Mercury to abandon its complacent reporting of the outbreak.

We need to remember, too, that by no means all contemporary newspapers have survived and, even with the recent blessing of digitisation, not all of those are easily accessible to historians. "Many of the daily papers have contained paragraphs mentioning the existence of an Epidemic Fever at Cambridge," the Leeds Mercury had commented on 1 April.[123] Yet even if the Bury and Norwich Post and the Stamford Mercury were the University's only assailants, and if their power for harm had been limited to their home districts, these attacks could only have proved extremely damaging. The first circulated widely in East Anglia, while the second – its official title was the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury – acted as the ears and the voice of Lincolnshire. These were among the principal areas from which Cambridge drew its undergraduate population. With colleges habitually formally admitting their new intake around June – although the freshmen did not come into residence until October – it is likely that parents were making their own decisions about the future of their sons at just the moment when Cambridge was engulfed in a wave of terrible publicity.  Recruitment for the next academic year was hardly helped by the implication of the Bury and Norwich Post that the institution lacked intelligent leadership, nor by the blunt view of the Stamford Mercury that the local medical community was incompetent and untrustworthy. The University was within two weeks of moving in its usual zombie-like somnambulism into the Easter Term of 2015. If students were to be instructed to delay their return from vacation, an urgent decision was required. Perhaps for the first time in the history of British higher education, a university was forced to shape its action in response to a media storm.

The University responds At this point, it must be regretted that neither of the authors of vivid contemporary memoirs, Henry Gunning and George Pryme, commented on the University's decision to close its doors temporarily to undergraduates, nor do we have any diarist to supply the insider comments of Joseph Romilly two decades later. Nonetheless, the outline story can be reconstructed. The academic establishment would have quickly become aware of the Bury and Norwich Post's censure of its collective leadership qualities: the newspaper was published on Wednesdays, and close to Cambridge. The Stamford Mercury's diatribe had appeared on 7 April, a Friday, and perhaps it had not yet arrived when the Heads gathered for informal consultation, as they always did so assemble, in the vestry at Great St Mary's after Sunday service. If, as seems likely, other newspapers that cannot now be traced had also attacked the University's response to the Cambridge fever, the Vice-Chancellor and the Heads would have faced the need to reach an urgent decision.

Technically speaking, the Easter Term had already begun, on 5 April.[124] College teaching was set to resume around 20 April. If undergraduates were to be warned not to return for the Easter Term, contemporary communications made early action vital.  It took two days for a letter to reach Leeds. Returning for the Michaelmas Term of 1814, Whewell had spent three days on the road from Lancaster.[125]  A Congregation – a meeting of the Senate – had been called for Tuesday, 11 April. Its purpose was primarily ceremonial, to confer the degree of Doctor of Divinity upon the recently elected Master of St John's, James Wood. Since a full attendance of his peers could be expected as a mark of respect, the gathering would provide an opportunity for a further and more formal meeting of the Heads of Houses. Respect for the Sabbath no doubt inhibited them from reaching any formal decision at Great St Mary's. However, there may still have been some doubt among them about the need to postpone the start of Term. Okes insisted that the Cam efficiently carried off stagnant water, and it is possible that some of the riverside colleges felt less threatened by the outbreak. Therefore, the Tuesday meeting would take the form of a conference with local medics, which would clarify the options.[126] In effect, the Heads were moving at convoy speed towards an unavoidable decision, while leaning over backwards to defer to the battered dignity of the Cambridge medical community.

If this reconstruction of the University's response to press attack is plausible, then it might be asked: why did Thackeray bypass the alternative procedure of suspending the Easter Term by bringing a Grace to the Senate? An institution that rested so firmly upon precedent and privilege was likely to know its way around its own archives. Gunning's 1828 volume on academic ceremonies drew freely upon the official Grace Book, and deeply in to yesteryear. It could easily have been established that previous closures had been the subject of formal votes. The first obstacle to inviting the Senate to take action was practical. The previously announced Tuesday meeting was a Statutable Congregation, a set date "for the ordinary routine of university affairs", in this case the conferring of degrees. To convene an emergency meeting, "a printed notice, specifying the business" had to be "hung up in the Halls of the several colleges three days previous to the time of assembly". Even if such a procedure had been agreed at Great St Mary's, the combination of Sunday, the need to draft a Grace, translate it into Latin before having it printed and circulated would have pointed to gathering the Senate no earlier than Thursday – dangerously close to the start of teaching, as well as an inconvenient second meeting within forty-eight hours.[127] Second, there were the political objections. Any Grace must first be endorsed by the Caput, where – as examined earlier – any one member could impose a veto. Given the criticism of the local medical profession, Woodhouse, on behalf of the Faculty of Physic, would have been almost certain to prevent a formal proposal on behalf of the University that was tantamount to admitting that local practitioners were – to quote the hurtful words of the Stamford Mercury –"unacquainted with the true nature of the disease". Furthermore, even when the Senate was invited to legislate a month later, there was opposition to what was by then a wholly reasonable proposal to regularise the veiled implications of the Heads' earlier decision. Third, a brief glance at the records would have revealed that there was no particular need to follow precedent. Seventeenth-century academic legislation had focused on the suspension of two activities: sermons at Great St Mary's, and the acts and disputations that constituted the examination process. There were just two special sermons in the weeks ahead, on 8 and 29 May. The first was to be preached by the Regius Professor of Divinity, or his deputy, and was intended to be "ad clerum", addressed to the clergy. The second was a Litany Day, where the primary requirements were sartorial, with Doctors expected to wear scarlet and noblemen to appear in their robes. Neither of these had much to do with undergraduates, who were in any case subjected to such an intense regime of compulsory chapel that few of them had either the time or the appetite to attend University services.[128] As for the acts and disputations, if there were no undergraduates in residence, there could be no assessment procedures. It would be a short step to facing the plain fact that very little of importance happened in the Easter Term anyway.

A reporter noted "a respectable and rather full Congregation in the Senate House" on Tuesday 11 April.[129] It is hard to imagine any gathering of Cambridge MAs that was not predominantly respectable, and the attendance must have been boosted by a large turn-out from St John's in honour of their Master. But it may also reflect a donnish wish to find out what was going on, and perhaps to lobby for or against emergency action. It was probably at the close of the ceremonies that the Heads walked the short distance to King's to begin their own deliberations at the Provost's Lodge. The most detailed account that I have traced was dated 12 April from Cambridge, but only appeared in the Chester Chronicle two weeks later. "Yesterday the Heads of Houses assembled at the Vice Chancellor's and received the opinions of the medical Gentlemen of the town, respecting the present state of its health, when it appeared that the fever had almost entirely ceased; but as they recommended a further extension of the period which had been fixed for the return of Students to their respective Colleges, it was unanimously resolved to extend that indulgence to the 20th of May."[130] The report in the Chester Chronicle suggests that the Heads were anxious to protect the position of the local medical profession, although noteworthy that they talked to "the medical Gentlemen of the town" rather than specifically to the Faculty of Physic. Most University-trained men also engaged in practice locally, and were involved with Addenbrooke's, and so would have been included in the consultation. Even so, it is striking that Pennington, after twenty years as Regius Professor, was not regarded as a name capable of conveying authority and reassurance.

One major difficulty about the report is the ambiguity of the word "they". One might assume that "they" referred back to the main subject of the paragraph, the Heads: they received the reassuring report on the state of health of the Town, but (and the preposition makes most sense read this way) they were already in effect committed to a further extension of undergraduate absence, their colleagues, the Tutors, having already shooed the young men away. However, it may be interpreted as meaning that the medics were confident that the fever was in retreat but recommended as an additional safety measure the postponement of term-time activities. The version of the report that appeared in the Norfolk Journal suggests the latter version. After the meeting of the Vice-Chancellor and the Heads "with the medical gentlemen of the University and town, it was determined, upon their report, that it was not expedient that the Undergraduates should return to their respective Colleges before the 20th of May."[131] Perhaps there was a deal: the University would endorse the professional standing of the local medics by accepting their view that the fever was in retreat. They, in return, would recommend the temporary closure of the institution that some at least of the Heads very much needed.

The statement that the decision was taken "unanimously" also prompts the speculation that this may have been 'spin'. As already discussed, decision-making processes among the Heads were opaque, and it might be argued that any pronouncement from them was, in the ultimate sense, unanimous, since it was made in their collective name. The most we can guess is that three small colleges, Christ's, Emmanuel and Jesus, would have pushed for a quarantine measure because they had very recent deaths within their walls. St John's and Trinity had energetically driven their students out of town, but (as will be seen) they may not have been so keen to prolong the exile. Another mysterious area relates to the dissemination of their decision. The Norfolk Journal published it within two days, but the Stamford Mercury only reported it on 21 April – a little late for any student reader – while The Times, still not fully established as England's paper of record, seems to have ignored the matter altogether. Possibly Tutors contacted their students direct, an exercise that would have required a good deal of clerical work and an optimistic (and expensive) reliance upon contemporary postal services.

The Vice-Chancellor issued a short statement: "That it was not expedient that the undergraduates should return before May 20".[132] For all its brevity, both its choice of language and its selected date merit comment. What precisely did these learned dignitaries mean when they pronounced that the immediate return of their charges was "not expedient"? On the face of it, they were expressing confidence in the judgement of the local medics, but indicating that there were wider considerations known only to their secret wisdom which had to be taken into account. However, the choice of phrase should also be filtered through the fact that the Heads possessed enormous but undefined authority. Perhaps their pronouncement should be seen in the terms that Ko-Ko defined the authority of the Emperor of Japan. "When your Majesty says, 'Let a thing be done', it's as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty's will is law."[133] Yet the edict stopped short of insisting that no undergraduate should set foot in Cambridge for the next six weeks. The Vice-Chancellor and the Heads of Houses had determined that it was "not expedient" for undergraduates to return to Cambridge for nearly six weeks. Because their word was law, it might be assumed that no student would set foot in the precincts until the embargo was lifted.

Yet the key point remained that the authority of the Heads was undefined. Accordingly, they sensibly avoided issuing an explicit prohibition since, without the validation of a seventeenth-century style Senate resolution, such a ban would have violated the autonomy of their individual colleges. One college almost immediately interpreted the concept of expediency to suit its own interests. After spending a week sight-seeing and theatre-going in London, William Whewell was back in Cambridge by 14 April. It is unlikely that he would have returned unless he had been summoned. "We have now about twenty undergraduates in Trinity." It is probably no coincidence that Trinity would have fourteen candidates classed in the Mathematics Tripos in each of the next two years: it looks as if the University's largest college was quietly gathering its potential stars to keep them in training for high academic honours. Were other colleges also bending the implied rules? It seems unlikely. "Cambridge is wonderfully dull at present; almost everybody has left it," Whewell reported on 14 April. Two weeks later, he again referred to "the dullness of the place" and "the want of amusement and society".[134] Trinity, it would seem, used the temporary closure to steal a march upon its rivals, no doubt capitalising on the advantage that its extended site was large enough to hide student contraband.  If so, the strategy worked: sixteen of its twenty-eight candidates in the next two years would emerge as Wranglers.

J.M.F. Wright was one of the minority of Trinity undergraduates who remained in residence throughout the Easter Term. He claimed this was the result of his own decision. "I would not budge, although seriously remonstrated with by the Tutor for my obstinacy." This was highly unlikely. Wright was a freshman, admitted as a sizar from King's Lynn School. It is inconceivable that he could have defied a Tutor's edict to leave Cambridge. There is plenty of evidence in Alma Mater that he was an enthusiast for mathematics, and his potential was confirmed by his election as a Scholar of Trinity in 1818. He would later publish, in two volumes, Solutions of the Cambridge Problems 1800 to 1820, a handbook for students of mathematics, and a Commentary on Newton's Principia.[135] It is much more likely that Wright was one of the small number of high-fliers whom Trinity decided to retain for intensive teaching: the fact that he remained in Cambridge throughout the Long Vacation of 1815, a privilege that would have required specific permission, confirms this. In the event, he left Cambridge in 1819 with a Pass degree, subsequently claiming that Trinity had mishandled his enrolment for the Mathematics Tripos the previous year in such a manner that he would have been debarred from achieving high Honours. However, his resolve in favour of "cutting Honours, by quietly sitting down in the Gulph" may mask some other explanation. The 'Gulph' represented a category of students who dropped out of Honours "for sickness, or some other sufficient cause", and Wright's subsequent and apparently contradictory account of actually taking the Senate House Examination indicates some major failure in performance.[136] Alma Mater represented his version of the story, and his mathematical publications a retrospective attempt to assert his genius in the discipline.

If Wright's version of the reason why he remained in Cambridge seems suspect, his account of how the time was spent is more easily believed. The small group still in residence regarded themselves as an elite who had "seen through the fog, or, at all events, were bold enough to encounter it" – a superior minority who had rejected the panic. For the first few weeks, they pursued their studies, as if compelled by the force of momentum that mathematicians set out to calculate. But though they might boldly defy the Cambridge fever, they could not resist the more insidious menace of indolence. In its regular routine, Trinity instilled diligence through a demanding ritual of annual assessments. "Having no June Examination, during this year, to prepare for – honours and prizes having vanished from before them, not entirely, but yet into the dim distance of more than a twelvemonth – all of us became by degrees as united in laziness, as we had previously been in industry." Wright broadly hinted that he threw himself into sexual adventures in the Town.[137] Maybe he did, but his "all of us" certainly did not include the determinedly studious William Whewell.

While it might seem irresponsible for Trinity to risk its high-flyers in an epidemic zone, it is more likely that its Seniority (management committee) had concluded that the Cambridge fever was indeed on the wane. Sometime around the meeting of the Heads, the churchwardens of the thirteen Town parishes made a reassuring report to the local Quarter Sessions.[138] The Norfolk Chronicle summarised their findings: "there are only fifteen persons now ill of the fever, which has been prevalent here, and those mostly children, who are recovering, although the population of the place exceeds 12,000.... Fifteen persons only have died in the last four months, eight of whom were children." (Whewell had heard a slightly different version of the figures: "only sixteen have died in the town since the beginning of the fever, and eleven of those were children.") The Norfolk Chronicle acknowledged that "[t]he alarm in the University has been very great, owing to eight having died within the last four months", but the local strategy now was evidently to play down the crisis: three of the deaths "were not of the fever. One University man only is at this time unwell, but in a convalescent state."[139]

It is a measure of the mistrust of the local medical profession that an encouraging report from the Town authorities should have been accepted without the obvious reservation that Cambridge shopkeepers and traders had their own interest in minimising a public health problem. In fact, Okes still had three University patients who were presumably too sick to be sent home. Sedgwick heard of "one or two new cases" during April.  As late as 3 May, a second-year undergraduate, James Dusautoy, died "at his rooms, in Emmanuel-college": the cause of his death was not reported, but Sedgwick took for granted that he was a casualty of the fever. Dusautoy had presumably been in residence prior to 11 April.[140]  

However, even if the outbreak was assumed to be ebbing away, attention would be drawn to another feature of the Heads' decision, the choice of 20 May as the deferral date for the return of undergraduates to residence. The date was selected not as the result of any epidemiological prediction but because it marked the division of the Easter Term. Every Cambridge Term divided at its mid-point, although it was hard to see why: undergraduates were almost certainly unaware of the fissile qualities of the academic year. The division of Term was simply a device to signpost certain events. Thus a matriculation ceremony was held the day after, while the scheduled meeting of the Library Syndicate took place on the following Monday.[141] There was not the slightest point in students returning to Cambridge for the former, since they were  already duly admitted as members of the University, nor were they remotely involved in the management of its Library.[142] If residence requirements were to be enforced, students would be obliged to remain in Cambridge into July to "keep" their required nights, although it was difficult to see what they might usefully do.  In 1852, it would be pointed out that "with the division of the Easter term, the Collegiate year virtually ceases".  Even later in the century, when Cambridge was becoming a more serious place, the Student's Guide (written for students and not by them) strongly argued that it was "undesirable for an average student to commence his residence in the Easter Term, when the season invites to an anticipation of the enjoyments of the Long Vacation".[143] In postponing the return of the students until 20 May, the Heads of Houses were perhaps intentionally myopic about the implications of the date. As early as mid-April, Whewell noted that "some people doubt whether it will be thought necessary for them to return then."[144] Unfortunately, regularisation of the anomalous situation would require legislation, the formal passage of a Grace. The Heads had created a problem that only the Senate could resolve. Cambridge's dual-stream decision-making process implied a two-stage decision.

Thus there may well have been some sense of inevitability about the Grace that was submitted to the Senate on 3 May to allow students who had "kept" the Lent Term to be credited with the current Easter Term as well, notwithstanding their absence from Cambridge.[145] As with the earlier decision of the Heads of Houses, we lack memoirs or diaries that might take us behind the scenes of the Senate's deliberations: a brief comment by Sedgwick provides the only evidence for motive, and he had taken refuge two hundred miles away. Two main points stand out. First, the Grace was elaborately worded to reassure the distant parents of undergraduates while at the same time mollifying the resentful and all-too-present members of the much-criticised local medical community. Second, it did not pass without opposition. Bolting together sentiments directed at two very different constituencies hardly created an elegant proposal. The Grace began by stating that "an opinion exists in some parts of the country that the students of the university cannot with safety return immediately to their colleges, on account of a fever being prevalent in this place". This was clumsy wording, since it appeared to endorse the view that infection was still rife in Cambridge. The Grace promptly rowed back on this implication with the assertion, designed no doubt to show confidence in the medics, that "there is great reason to hope such opinion is groundless".  Determined optimism fell notably short of an authoritative pronouncement that the crisis was over. Out of the muddle emerged the proposal ("to prevent the anxiety of parents and friends") that "their term be allowed to all undergraduates who, having kept the Lent Term, are absent during the present Easter Term."

Cooper's enigmatic note that the passage of the Grace was "not without opposition" can only encourage speculation. When he decamped to the Yorkshire Dales, Sedgwick had "expected to be called back to the University to keep the latter part of the term. The death, however, of a member of Emmanuel, and one or two new cases of fever, induced the Senate ... to give the term altogether."[146] It is possible that he telescoped the death of James Dusautoy on 3 May with the Senate decision that day, since we do not know the exact order of events. In order to put a Grace to the Senate on 3 May, the Caput would probably have approved its wording sometime around the weekend of 29-30 April. It was here that the role of the Master of Emmanuel may have been crucial, both as a member of the Caput and as a Head of House widely respected among his peers. When the Heads of Houses gathered at Great St Mary's that Sunday, Cory probably warned that a second-year Emmanuel man was on his deathbed, and pleaded for drastic action to save the University – and his college in particular – from public censure.

It may be that Cooper unwittingly exaggerated donnish resistance: contemporary reports used the phrase "not without some opposition" (emphasis added), which may not have amounted to much more than frustrated grumbling.[147] As a general rule, academics object to having circumscribed choices forced upon them by  management decisions. Some dons may not have been persuaded by the earlier postponement, and remained resistant to its retrospective ratification. Others may have been moved by what F.M. Cornford would later call "the principle of washing linen", that the University would do itself more harm by admitting that something was wrong than it could possibly suffer by risking a few more deaths should the fever roar back amongst a reassembled student population. There may, too, have been a generalised fear of creating a precedent, always one of the great fears of Cambridge conservatives. After all, casually wiping out a whole term might risk raising the question of the utility of a University education in any form.

On 24 May, the outbreak was officially declared to be over by three of Faculty of Physic's chief luminaries, Pennington, Woodhouse and Thomas Ingle, Fellow of Peterhouse, pronouncing in their role as surgeons of Addenbrooke's Hospital.[148] None of the three had made any public contribution to discussion of the Cambridge fever, although we may assume that Woodhouse had fought his colleagues' corner in the Caput. Nor did they specify what, if any, role the hospital had played during the crisis. Their brief statement had a tentative ring about it, as if they sought to cover their tracks should the sickness break out again: "we do not know of any fever now prevailing in Cambridge". They added only diagnostic comment, in similar vein: "so far as we have been able to observe, the feverish complaint which has sometime back prevailed here, was not of a contagious nature."[149] The use of the terms "prevailed" and "prevailing" should also be noted: the distinguished medical trio did not deny that the fever might still be around, they merely asserted that it was no longer a dominant force. Nonetheless, the statement appears to have been accepted, perhaps because an era that was accustomed to mystery illnesses took for granted that they would eventually go away. "The epidemic fever, which caused so much alarm some time since at Cambridge, has entirely subsided." Happily, the University's end-of-year fiesta, the Commencement, "will in consequence take place at the usual period". Cambridge duly ploughed its annual furrows, in late June bestowing its prizes and medals. On 4 July the Commencement was celebrated, although – as Sedgwick's biographers put it – "with maimed rites".[150] For some academics, the Easter Term of 1815 may have been the ideal form of academic life, a University almost totally devoid of students.[151]


Aftermath In August 1815, it was reported that "the absence of gentlemen from the colleges in consequence of the late alarming fever" had cost the local economy £60,000. "The greatest dullness consequently prevails in the town."[152] Of course, the colleges were usually quiet in August, and one pair of tourists found their tranquillity enchanting. The essayist Charles Lamb had not studied at the University, but he knew Cambridge well. For his sister and co-worker, Mary, it was a captivating first visit. They made a point of exploring Jesus College, where Lamb's friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had studied, if not very assiduously. It was probably Jesus, with its shaded cloisters, that Mary had in mind when she wrote of the colleges that she liked "[t]he little gloomy ones because they were little gloomy ones. I felt as if I could live and die in them and never speak again".[153] Five months earlier, young men had indeed died within the precincts of Jesus. The Cambridge fever was becoming forgotten.

Late in August, the Bury and Norwich Post coined a memorably modern-sounding name for the epidemic, as it drew a line between past and future. "The terror-fever has so entirely subsided in the University, that the admissions, even at the minor colleges, have been more numerous within the last month than have been known at this season for many years past."[154] This was perhaps a slight exaggeration: the new academic year would see 297 new entrants to the University, precisely the same as the figure for matriculations in 1814. If there was an August rush to enrol, it was perhaps caused by those families who had planned to send their sons to Cambridge holding back until the last minute. Recruitment remained level for the next two academic years, before rising to 334 in 1818 and 423 the following year. There was a slight dip in the number of candidates classed in the Mathematical Tripos both in January 1816 and January 1817, which may suggest that a handful of potential Honours students decided to settle for the Pass degree thanks to the disruption of their studies.[155] However, that evidence is slight, and it seems to be the only faint indication that the Easter 1815 shut-down caused anything more than temporary inconvenience.  Of course, nobody can ever know whether banning undergraduates from returning to Cambridge that term saved any lives. Yet it seems reasonable to conclude that the University's unusually urgent response to public concern set in place the foundations for the growth in numbers of new students that began in 1818. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of that expansion was that Jesus College was one of its main beneficiaries. By 1821, it was "the most numerous of the lesser colleges", and in the following year the Master and Fellows decided to build additional accommodation "owing to the great Increase in the Number of Members of the College".[156]

Cambridge medicine was wholly unchanged by the episode of the fever. Admitting that his own "habits have been practical rather than speculative", Thomas Verney Okes claimed that he issued his "little tract" not to prevent "the publication of a more able statement" but as "the means of invoking its appearance". In theory, perhaps, a restricted outbreak in a small town that happened to be the home of an academic medical community might have been the occasion of a detailed enquiry, asking the questions that William Budd posed a quarter of a century later – about contacts, about milk and water supply. Okes, in ruling out "animal decomposition" as a cause, may have travelled some short distance along that road.[157] Unfortunately, there was never much prospect that an academic medical faculty led by Pennington would trouble itself with such an enquiry, the more so as Cambridge medics seem to have been united in the belief, as expressed by Okes, that public concern about the Cambridge fever had been "very extraordinary" and greatly exaggerated.

Because the Faculty of Physic possessed nothing like a shared intellectual identity, there would have been no vehicle for a collective research project, even had there existed any desire to pursue such an enquiry. Four years later, the Cambridge Philosophical Society was established mainly through the efforts of J.S. Henslow, later to become the botanist who encouraged the young Charles Darwin, and the geologist Adam Sedgwick. The Philosophical Society provided a platform for the presentation and, through its Transactions, the publication of individual research findings. That there remained limitations to this approach may be seen in the communication from John Haviland, a Professor (initially of Anatomy) since late in 1814 and, in 1817, Pennington's successor in the Regius Chair. On 5 December 1819, a third-year undergraduate, John Legard, had fallen sick with fever. He was initially treated by John Okes, a young apothecary who had taken over his father's practice in 1817. One week later, Okes referred the case to Haviland, who approved his colleague's "appropriate treatment". Although Legard's symptoms seemed to be abating, "nevertheless I applied leeches to the temples, and a blister between the shoulders, and employed small doses of purgative medicine". There was some professional disappointment when the patient "unexpectedly became worse". On 22 December, John Legard died "at his apartments in Trinity-street". In previously good health, Legard was "of sedentary and studious habits", as he had proved by decamping to Trinity from his original college, the increasingly frivolous Magdalene. John Okes and Haviland jointly conducted an autopsy, the results of which the professor communicated to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in December 1820.[158] Thus far, this would seem to be model scientific procedure, in reporting terms at least. But it is striking to note what Haviland, himself a reformer, omitted to consider. In 1815, Thomas Verney Okes had also conducted a post mortem examination on a deceased fever patient. Haviland did not cross-reference his abdominal observations with the findings of the father of his colleague. Legard was merely noted to have "symptoms of fever", but no attempt was made to enquire whether his case was a recurrence of the 1815 outbreak. At best, Haviland's methodology could be termed descriptive. It was definitely not explanatory. 

The longer-term absence of any intellectual impact from the Cambridge fever may also be strikingly illustrated through the career of William Whewell, one of the few front-line participants whose experience of the episode can be reconstructed. Whewell was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1817, later becoming a Tutor – which placed him at the heart of its administration – before being appointed Master in 1841. He swept through a range of scientific disciplines, challenging, systematising, defining – perhaps most famously, coining the term 'scientist'.[159] Yet Whewell made no contribution to any field closely related to medicine. The criticism may seem unfair:  even a polymath can be allowed a blind spot. Whewell's training was in mathematics: to have made any extensive contribution to diagnostic medicine would have required a background in chemistry. Yet an equally powerful obstacle even to speculation about the nature of disease was Whewell's bedrock of religious belief. The fact that he did not seek ordination until 1825 might suggest that his decision to become a priest was career-related, since most college notables of that era were in holy orders. Yet there can be no doubt of the unquestioning depth of his faith. Whewell "detested" the philosophy of a work from a previous Cambridge generation, William Paley's Evidences of Christianity, precisely because it adopted the rationalist position that the truths of religion could be deduced from observation of the natural world.[160] This, to Whewell, was reversing the cart and the horse. Rather, all scientific investigation should embody the assumption of what he called the Final Cause, which in modern times is known as the first cause argument, sometimes sarcastically dismissed as the God of the gaps. "This idea of the Final Cause is not deduced from the phenomena by reasoning, but assumed as the only condition under which we can reason on such subjects at all," he wrote in 1840.[161] It followed, as he had insisted thirteen years earlier, that those who conducted scientific enquiry in an irreligious spirit must have "something vicious and mistaken in their trains of research".[162] Sadly, it was a mindset that would lead him to round off half a century of creative hyperactivity by rejecting Darwin.

In relation to disease, the implications of this theistic view of the universe are shocking. If Whewell the scientific investigator was indifferent to cause of infection, Whewell the priest positively rejoiced at the inability of the medical profession to understand that nature of epidemics. In November 1849, he preached a sermon at Great St Mary's to mark the national day of thanksgiving at the conclusion of the cholera outbreak. His fundamental complaint was that the natural world was increasingly viewed in secular terms. Most people "habitually forget God", taking for granted "[t]he events of the natural world, storm and sunshine, season succeeding to season, the earth, the air, the waters ministering to our life. ... They accept them, as if they came from Chance or Nature which has no will and no choice." If his discourse reflected any assumptions about the spread of infection, they were miasmic. "We live on from year to year inhaling health from the atmosphere, seeing little of disease except as the result of our vices, little of death except as the natural progress of human decay; and we think that health is the proper right of man, and that the extent of the conquest of death is limited by fixed boundaries."  In this dangerous complacency, "we forget that death is but a rod in the hand of the Most High, and that it is as easy for Him to mark out with it among the people of the land a larger as a smaller portion to be taken away from among us; easy to encircle with its black line, not one in a hundred or one in fifty, but one tenth, one fourth, one half of the whole population."  This led Whewell to perhaps the most chilling statement in his bleak and declamatory address, that "therefore it is most fit that He should, in His good Providence, remind us of this momentous truth, by extraordinary visitations. ... If we forget Him in times of health, is it not most fit that He should send upon us times of sickness?" Furthermore, the transgression that had provoked this celestial rebuke lay precisely in the celebration of material progress: "have not men of late been prone to a temper of self-gratulation and self-admiration, for which a lesson of humility was much needed? I speak not of men's sentiments with regard each to himself personally, but of their feeling with regard to the achievements of their age and generation."  Too often there were "the most loud and frequent expressions of exultation and self-complacency? The inventions of our time, it was often said, had placed us at a vast elevation above all previous ages. We, it cannot be doubted, are wiser than our fathers were, and do familiarly what they deemed impossible." Steam power and the electric telegraph were paralleled by "an unheard-of activity of thought prevalent, in which all ranks and classes share. The culture of the mind is now no longer confined to a few, but is acknowledged as the right and promoted as the benefit of all."[163] In Whewell's mind, this age of confident rationality badly needed a divine rap across its knuckles.

Thus far, Whewell's interpretation of the cholera epidemic appeared to have regressed from Andrew Perne's explanation of the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1574, when a pro forma attribution to "our synnes" was accompanied by a comment on the origin of infection and a proposal to clean up the King's Ditch. Cynics might object that Whewell's jeremiad was to be expected from the pulpit: Romilly thought it "very fine indeed".[164] Yet there was much in his argument that did not make sense, even in his own terms. Cholera had originated in Asian countries still relatively untouched by the smug utilitarian thinking of the Industrial Revolution. Whewell did not ask why some epidemics were savage, but others – like the outbreak of fever that he had witnessed in 1815 – claimed relatively few victims. No doubt the mathematician in him was inhibited from seeking any ratio between the intensity of transgression and the rate of mortality by his refusal to countenance the possibility that the divine response might captured in some independent naturalistic formula. Nor did his cosmic interpretation begin to explain why, in 1815, the supreme penalty for collective hubris should have been paid by John Alty, at 25 on the verge of promising career, or by the likeable and talented teenager John Wilson.

Posterity should never discount the force of Whewell's belief that scientific investigation could only confirm, not demonstrate, the existence of a Creator.[165] However, it might be thought that his insistence on the Final Cause would have enabled him to recognise intermediate causal steps that would help understand the spread of cholera, the more so as reformers pointed to an association with poverty and filth, even if – in his theoretical construct – rational explanation had to give way to the assumption of divine purpose behind the origins of the disease. The problem was that, several decades ahead of the evolution of germ theory, those who suspected that cholera outbreaks were caused by polluted water could not prove their suspicions. Thus in 1849, William Budd's theory of "fungoid bodies" was rejected by a committee of eminent surgeons as "erroneous", and dismissed by the Lancet, on the eve of Whewell's sermon, as the result of "uncertain speculations".[166] Whewell, then, cannot be wholly blamed for his myopic approach to the intermediate or practical causes of the cholera outbreak. However, where a modern scientist would conclude the advance of knowledge had not yet constructed a persuasive explanation but that it would one day do so, Whewell's belief in an angry creator led him to regard the failure of medical research as final, even welcome: "this visitation was specially fitted to break down any conceit which we may entertain of the great skill of our time in matters which concern the health of the body." Even after two major cholera epidemics, seventeen years apart, "the wisest of our physicians presume not to say that they know more of its nature and origin, or of the means of resisting its invasions and healing where it smites, than they knew when first it appeared among us. Of all these things they are ignorant now as they were ignorant then."[167] After a third of a century of energetic scientific enquiry across a range of subjects, William Whewell had acquired no greater insight into the nature of cholera – and, indeed, felt no need to seek any such explanation – than he had understood of the "fever of some kind" that had threatened his examination preparations back in 1815.

Cholera and typhoid Whewell's 1849 sermon was preached on a national day of thanksgiving. In fact, cholera had barely touched Cambridge either in 1832 or at its second major appearance seventeen years later.[168] On the face of it, this requires explanation. Imported from across the North Sea, cholera especially ravaged ports, notably Sunderland. Cambridge was an inland port: coal arrived by barge after transshipment at King's Lynn.  A serious outbreak at Ely in March 1832 was associated with the river trade. The University's links with London, the location of a major epidemic, were of course also close. In contrast to the lethargic and uncoordinated reactions of 1815, the Town and the University united in November 1831 to establish a Board of Health, mobilising twenty local medical practitioners in its service.[169] Downriver, such intervention was opposed as an attempt to fasten the grip of social control: government notices warning of the disease were fly-posted with the slogans "No cholera at Ely/ The Parsons Liars/ And Doctors Pickpockets".[170] Comparison with another regional port town, Wisbech, which took little local action in response to three outbreaks of cholera between 1832 and 1854, suggests that Cambridge benefited from its anticipatory clean-up policy. Available evidence does not establish whether the proactive move against the cholera was the explicit result of lessons learned from the Cambridge fever sixteen years earlier.

The nineteenth-century gradually made advances in identifying typhoid, and thereby beginning to understand it: Britain's official mortality statistics differentiated between typhus and typhoid from 1869. In Cambridge, Addenbrooke's had established fever wards in 1833.[171] A much sounder knowledge of the disease, also known as enteric fever, helped the University ride out a minor outbreak in the winter of 1873-4 that in some ways replicated the Cambridge fever of almost sixty years earlier. There was also a much more concerted and intelligent response to the challenge.

"Enteric fever" at Caius, 1873 "Typhoid fever has been prevalent for several weeks past in some of the colleges at Cambridge," the Morning Post reported early in December, "and at the present time the epidemic is rapidly increasing." As in 1815, students said to be were fleeing particular colleges. "Caius College is entirely deserted, and the students are leaving King's, Queen's [sic] and Trinity Hall in large numbers."[172] The British Medical Journal more reassuringly stated that although it was thought "desirable to send home many of the students earlier than usual ... the cases are not nearly so numerous as they are reported to be." Although there was also an outbreak in suburban and predominantly working-class Barnwell, there was a clear concentration of cases in the central area, a point made more obvious since discussion of the 1873 epidemic did not embody the artificial distinction between University and Town that had so strangely characterised 1815. The Town cases came from Market Hill, Peas Hill and Benet Street, while Queens', whose single patient was later dismissed as "rumoured", and Caius, with seven, one of whom had died, provided the student victims.[173]  The Cambridge Independent Press made light of the "sensational" reports, expressly denying any panic exodus from King's and Trinity Hall, and pointing out that there was always an exodus of undergraduates at that time of year, simply because it was the end of Term. The timing of the bad publicity towards the close of the Michaelmas Term contrasted with the peak of concern in 1815, when the University had been forced to make a decision at the start of the Easter Term. The fact that nobody contemplated suspending undergraduate teaching in the winter of 1873-4 may be explained in part by the chronology of concern.

The conclusion of the Cambridge Independent Press that "by the use of disinfecting fluids we have little doubt that any reason for alarm that may exist will soon disappear" was complacent, although it was also far more positive than any advice available in 1815.[174] Nonetheless, there was certainly typhoid in Cambridge, and it was notably present in Caius, where two cases eventually proved fatal. The second to die, nineteen-year-old freshman Arthur Winslow, was the nephew of a controversial pioneer psychiatrist, L. Forbes Winslow, a former Caius student who had switched to Downing a decade earlier. He publicly condemned the "sanitary condition" of his old college, holding Caius responsible for the young man's death.[175]  In 1815, critics had unsuccessfully called for the University to bring in outside experts. Now the prominent medical journal, the Lancet, simply sent in its own investigative commission. Its report, published on 3 January 1873, put the blame on the Town centre sewerage system generally – the outfalls into the Cam were below river level and therefore impossible to flush – and specifically upon the lack of efficient sewer ventilation, which resulted in the random escape of noxious gas and hence the spread of infection.[176] Meanwhile, two prominent Cambridge medics, both associated with Caius, undertook their own investigations. George Paget had been a surgeon at Addenbrooke's since 1839, and recently appointed Regius Professor of Physic.[177]  He was joined by a junior colleague, John Bradbury. They made the results of their enquiries available to the government inspector, George Buchanan, who arrived for a one-week visit on 17 January 1874. By eliminating some potential explanations for the Caius outbreak, Paget and Bradbury helped Buchanan to produce very rapidly a brilliant piece of medical detective work.

George Buchanan was a pioneer epidemiologist with vast practical experience that helped him to go direct to the heart of any local outbreak.[178] He took a neutral stance on such issues as germ theory, concentrating on the practical question of how infection was transmitted. Broadly, he accepted that "there had been an unusual amount of enteric fever [he did not use the term 'typhoid'] in the town of Cambridge" during the second half of 1873, and assumed that "some derivate of excrement" was the root cause of the outbreak. But placing a generalised blame upon the sewers was not enough. Buchanan was noted for his use of statistical techniques, and here basic arithmetic was enough to highlight the problem. Among 112 Caius students living in college there had been fifteen cases of fever. Twelve of these had occurred among the 63 undergraduates resident in Tree Court – about one in five. There had been no cases among the 51 students living in lodgings around the Town. Thus three points stood out: "first, that the fever attacked Caius College with a very special intensity; secondly, that it has attacked the students resident in college, and not the residents in town lodgings; thirdly, that it has attacked various parts of the college with various degrees of violence." The concentration of cases in Tree Court was not only puzzling but also embarrassing, since this part of Caius formed part of the massive buildings designed by Alfred Waterhouse, completed just four years earlier, and constructed to the most modern sanitary standards. There was also a mystery about the pattern of infections. The first patient, whose symptoms developed on 1 November, had rooms in an older part of the college. The first Tree Court case came a week later, and then followed a cluster of six between 15 and 19 November, five of them in Tree Court, plus one college servant – presumably a bedmaker – who worked in that part of Caius, and five children of employees in their family homes. Paget and Bradbury suspected that the undergraduate who had become ill on 1 November might have fallen into some separate category of causation.

Some possible explanations were easily dismissed.  Paget and Bradbury had already discarded "the hypothesis of atmospheric impurity", the catch-all theory of 1815. In theory, the 51 undergraduates living in lodgings were supposed to come into Caius every day to attend Chapel and to dine in Hall: the fact that none had fallen ill exonerated the college's spiritual and culinary facilities. The college's milk supply was also investigated, in the light of impressionistic reports that several Town cases took deliveries from the same dairy. Bradbury organised a door-to-door survey of 105 town centre families. Results were not wholly reliable, since some households were reluctant to admit to cases of fever, or wary of divulging their shopping habits. Nonetheless, the results did not seem to suggest any strong correlation with the firm that supplied Caius. A visit to its cowsheds found nothing untoward. In any case, milk was supplied to the college in bulk, and then distributed to individual sets in cans. There was no way that the milk supply could have caused the cluster of sickness in Tree Court.

There was still the likelihood that the answer was somehow to be found in defective sewerage. The Cambridge sewers were antique brick-vaulted chambers, now serving a community whose population had risen from 12,000 to 30,000 since 1815. Lacking ventilation and sluggishly discharging effluent into the Cam below river level, they were backed up with noxious fumes. Suspicion fell upon the cast-iron downpipes along the Trinity Street front of the new buildings, which discharged rainwater into an overloaded main sewer. However, this theory was rejected when it was realised that the rainwater heads, the only possible exit route for fumes, were immediately below the mansard windows of attic rooms, whose occupants were neither more nor less likely to have fallen sick.

Could infection have crept into the water supply? Here, again, there seemed insurmountable explanatory problems. The Cambridge University and Town Waterworks Company, created by act of parliament in 1853, was generally regarded as providing a high quality supply.[179] It was also delivered at high pressure, but Buchanan learned from college servants that there were interruptions, caused either by pipes freezing in cold weather, or by the company turning off the mains for repairs. College servants also spoke of the way the water would spurt when it came back on, one of them describing it as "like soda water". From this, Buchanan deduced that air was getting in to the mains, and it occurred to him that this might include what he called "sewer gas", possibly containing traces of infected excrement. When he pinned down the dates of the two most recent interruptions to the water supply, he noticed an intriguing correlation. The incubation period for enteric fever was about a fortnight. On 25 October, the Water Company had cut the supply through the Trinity Street entrance (the 'Gate of Humility'), interrupting the flow into the main serving Tree Court. The second fever victim had begun to exhibit symptoms on 8 November. The supply had been disconnected across central Cambridge on the morning of 1 November for major pipe repairs. This was All Saints' Day, a major event in the Church calendar which was marked by a musical service in King's College Chapel. The pipe work was hurried because the King's organ was hydraulically powered, and the mains supply had to be restored as quickly as possible. The cluster of cases between 15 and 19 November, mainly in Tree Court, also followed two weeks after this episode, although, of course, this did not mean that the piety of King's could be blamed for the suffering of Caius.

These two apparent correlations still left unaccounted for the initial 1 November case, the illness of a student who did not reside in Tree Court, and this would never be satisfactorily explained. Furthermore, while it was certainly possible that water pipes would have run dry during a disconnection, unless some explanation could be offered for the intrusion of "sewer gas" in Tree Court, and only Tree Court, the two-week interval would have to be dismissed as a coincidence. Buchanan turned his attention to the college's sanitary arrangements. When a water closet was flushed, it was briefly possible for "foul vapours" to escape through the S-bend. This was one of the reasons why the standard unit was equipped with a cistern, which prevented "vapours" from "passing directly into other parts of the water system". But in Tree Court a new form of water closet had been installed, which was flushed directly from the mains: apparently this had resulted from a last-minute alteration favoured by the plumbers and unknown to the architect.  Buchanan believed that the absence of the protective barrier provided by cisterns could explain the pollution of the drinking water supply, which was of course delivered through the same pipes.

Indeed, he was able to narrow down the core of the problem even further. Water had to be supplied through the horizontal underground mains at very high pressure in order to force it to the higher levels of each staircase, most of which were equipped with a water closet and a bedmaker's pantry. As an additional safety feature, a valve was fitted at the foot of each vertical pipe which was designed to be automatically closed by the weight of water above should the main run dry. Unfortunately, on P staircase of Tree Court, the valve had been incorrectly fitted "on its side in such a way that gravitation could not move its internal plug." As a result, the P staircase first-floor water closet was identified as almost certainly the means by which "fever poison" had transferred from the sewers to the drinking water. Other aspects of the outbreak fell into place. Enteric fever had been present in the Town since the summer, so infected sewage must have been present in the Trinity Street sewer from the start of Term. One of the three fever victims resident elsewhere in Caius was a close friend of an undergraduate in Tree Court, frequently visited him in his rooms and presumably had used the most convenient facility to relieve himself while there. College servants were allowed to take cans of milk home. These would first have been rinsed in polluted water, transferring infection to the children of employees. Buchanan had located not so much a smoking gun as a lethal latrine. Caius promptly set to work to clean up its sanitary facilities and in particular to install cisterns.

It is not necessary to follow George Buchanan further in his detailed investigation of traps and taps, and still less into his punctilious analysis of suspicious sludge. It is the contrast in the overall response with 1815 that stands out. Medical experts rapidly investigated the crisis at Caius and, above all, shared their thoughts and findings. Paget held Pennington's Chair, but he did not inherit his forerunner's indifference to a local health crisis. Buchanan was welcomed, even though he was a staunch champion of the University of London, an upstart organisation not universally popular in Cambridge. The Fellows of Caius provided unreserved co-operation, sensibly concluding that it was in their long-term interests to resolve the problem, however embarrassing the immediate implications of Buchanan's investigations.[180] Innocent of any possible threats of legal action, the Water Company assisted him in experimentally shutting off supplies so that he could observe possible routes of pollution. It might be objected that medicine had moved on in the six decades since the Cambridge fever. No doubt medical culture had become more open and enquiring, but the science behind it had not advanced an enormous distance. By 1874, Pasteur's speculations about germ theory and Lister's experiments with antisepsis were still tentative recent developments. It was not until the early 1880s that German scientists proposed that typhoid was caused by a bacillus, and identified salmonella as the cause. In a sense, Buchanan's suspicions of "sewer gas" represented a form of miasmatic theory with bells on. The questions that he posed, and most of the methods that he applied, might have been mobilised in 1815.

The 1873 outbreak was confined to Caius, and its cause was authoritatively identified within weeks. Accordingly, no question arose of repeating the radical measures of 1815 by suspending teaching across the University. Notably, this well-publicised and dismal episode did not threaten Cambridge's ability to attract students: matriculations continued to rise, constrained, so it would seem, only by lack of space.[181] Furthermore, the University flourished despite a continuing sluggish civic response to the undoubted need for a modernised sewerage system.

The British Medical Journal deplored reports that the Improvement Board (the successor to the Board of Health of 1831) could neither afford to undertake remedial work, nor borrow money without the consent of the University and the Town Council, hurdles that the Board was not prepared to tackle.  Only urgent action, said the BMJ, would "convince parents and guardians that it will be safe in future to allow young men to reside in Cambridge".[182] A year later, it returned to the topic, noting that "the captain of one of the leading boat clubs" was said to have been struck down by typhoid. But its real concern was not that there should be "an occasional sporadic case of severe illness and death" – the Victorians took that sort of hazard in their stride – but rather the frequency with which "the men at Cambridge complain of being more or less ill.... And how can it be otherwise, while they live over a cesspool, extending all under and about the town?"  With the Cam "no more than a vast open sewer", there was every reason "to fear, that there will be some more serious epidemic than there has yet been". But while such a major outbreak was held at bay, and given that "Oxford is as bad as Cambridge", the University was spared the intensity of public outcry that it had endured in 1815.[183]

There was further criticism in 1887, including a specific warning of the danger of typhoid, from Dr Alfred Carpenter, whose work on preventive medicine Buchanan had praised in his Caius investigation. He had been sufficiently impressed by the remedial work at Caius to entrust his son to the college in 1875. Edward Carpenter, who was heading for the Church, was seriously ill during his first year, but Alfred does not seem to have blamed that upon failures in sanitary procedures. In 1883, he became an examiner for the University's diploma in public health. Four years later, he wrote to the The Times, marvelling that the University could offer such an enlightened qualification but seemed incapable of cleaning up its own neighbourhood. In particular, the Cam was becoming "more and more a common sewer and a receptacle for the canine and feline dead of the borough", so much so that "had I sons at the University I should for their sakes, positively prohibit boating on the river." The Cambridge Independent Press poured scorn on his letter as the uninformed intervention of an outsider who had been put up to write by malign influences from within the Town.[184] A modern sewerage system was eventually installed in 1895.  

Possibly Cambridge escaped any major outbreak of disease in the late-nineteenth century because most premises had the benefit of a clean water supply. In 1908, the Vice-Chancellor, A.J. Mason of Christ's, dismissed "alarmist reports" arising from a pollution problem at nearby Fulbourne with the reassurance that "no other town in the kingdom is better equipped with all the aids that scientific advice can supply."[185] A century earlier, any such claim would have been risible.

Influenza If the typhoid outbreak of 1873-4 may be seen as a comparator for the Cambridge fever of 1815, there can be no doubt that the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 has been regarded as the forerunner of the 2020 coronavirus crisis. However, so far as the University is concerned, little information about the effect of the Spanish 'Flu seems to be accessible. A useful Internet essay establishes that influenza was present in the Town, forcing the closure of local schools in October and November 1918.[186] Yet it would have been unthinkable to consider suspending academic activities in the manner that the authorities had felt compelled to do a century earlier. In 1916, the number of undergraduates in residence had fallen as low as 236, many of them stranded overseas students from neutral countries. When peace returned, there was bound to be an influx of young men whose studies had either been interrupted or delayed. "Early in 1919 the University began to throb with life," recalled one returnee. That January, 2635 undergraduates arrived; by May, there were nearly 4,000 students, including 180 United States personnel on short courses, and 400 British naval officers diverted from Dartmouth, whose good-natured attempts at mayhem would endure in Cambridge legend. Most had held commissions, leading their men into action. Those had faced bullets were not going to flinch before a mere bug. Generally, they were older than their forerunners of 1815, and hence less susceptible to the parental concerns that had magnified the Cambridge fever. The curriculum too now included degrees in useful, career-related subjects, such as science and engineering. Special regulations allowed accelerated studies, with war service entitling a man to graduate in just five terms. Even if anybody had considered suspending a whole term, there would have been no remaining academic fat to pare away. Above all, the young men were frighteningly healthy. In the Michaelmas Term of 1919, over a thousand members crowded into the Union debating chamber to hear Lord Robert Cecil speak on the proposed League of Nations. They  crammed into every conceivable square inch of space, even under the Secretary's table. The President of the Union, J.W. Morris, likened the atmosphere to Crystal Palace cup-tie: a record crowd of 120,000 had watched the 1913 FA Cup Final. Lord Robert Cecil called it one of the most remarkable meetings he had ever attended, "crowded to an extent which would have been quite impossible if the audience had not consisted mainly of young and vigorous men."[187] The Spanish 'Flu targeted the young, and it may be wondered whether the virus raced through that particular Union debate. But even if there were undergraduates who were felled by influenza, there was no way that particular student community would have buckled before illness, and no possible scope for the University to have imposed yet further delay upon their studies.

Influenza remained a familiar if not a welcome visitor during the British winter. It is noteworthy that its occasional impact at Cambridge can be traced almost entirely through sports news. In 1908, the University's oarsmen had guarded against the virus by sucking oranges, an experiment reported with interest by newspapers in Australia's fruit-growing districts. By mid-February 1927, an influenza outbreak had killed eighteen people locally. There was much concern when the Stroke of the Cambridge Boat, R.J. Elles of Trinity Hall, was taken ill during the crew's marathon excursion down the River Ouse beyond Ely. However, a report that the attack of influenza had caused him to be referred to a cardiac specialist was disproved by his rapid return to the River to clinch his Blue. He would later join the Sudan Political Service, no career for an invalid. In 1932, the Cambridge crew "were inoculated against cold" (the wording of the report was hardly scientific), and it was thought to be "remarkable", if not downright unfair, that two of them were felled by influenza. The virus had presumably mutated beyond the defences of the vaccine. There are clues, too, that a later outbreak, the Asian 'Flu pandemic of 1957-59, cut a swathe through the University during the Michaelmas Term of 1957. The Times referred to the "ravages of influenza" on Oxbridge rowing, while its correspondent at the headquarters of Cambridge soccer was positively moved to the poetic. "Injury and influenza have been stalking Grange Road in cap and gown." The pandemic may have lingered on into 1959. "Influenza has recently been playing some havoc with the training at Cambridge", the Manchester Guardian reported in mid-February.[188] While a severe bout of influenza may well leave victims too weak for intensive physical activity, and for most students convalescence might delay a return to laboratories and lectures, it would not necessarily prevent them from reading books. The overall impression must be that, throughout the twentieth century, Cambridge co-existed with intermittent assaults from influenza, just as it had endured the miscellaneous distempers that it had taken in its stride, however uncomprehendingly, during the nineteenth.

Covid-19 This rapid survey seeks to establish a simple point: from time to time, there were outbreaks of sickness in Cambridge, as elsewhere, but none of them were regarded as sufficiently alarming – either locally or nationally – to cause the suspension of University activities.  On 18 March 2020, the Vice-Chancellor emailed all staff and students announcing that the University would suspend "normal operations" with effect from 5 p.m. that Friday, 20 March.[189] There will no doubt be a review of the University's handling of the Covid-19 crisis. All that can be offered here is an attempt to identify themes, comparisons and contrasts through the lens of the most recent interruption to academic routines, 205 years earlier. 

The lockdown was in response to government policy, and did not require any independent specific decision within the institution. In 1815, the impending start of the Easter Term had forced the issue early in April. In 2020, the Lent Term had ended a few days before the suspension of activities, making it a straightforward matter to refuse students who had gone down – the bulk of the undergraduate population – permission to return. In other respects, the challenges of 2020 were far more complex. In 1815, undergraduates had been overwhelmingly drawn from comfortable English backgrounds – Scots and Welsh students were rare, Irish Protestants equally scarce, foreigners unheard-of. Despatching them by stagecoach to the counting houses, mansions and parsonages of England was a relatively straightforward exercise. By 2019-20, the student population had ballooned over thirty times since the year of Waterloo, and 42 percent of them hailed from overseas. While this increase largely reflected the growth of postgraduate studies, around one quarter of Cambridge undergraduates were non-nationals. With the widespread closure of international borders and the virtual cessation of air travel, many of Cambridge's international students became marooned in colleges and hostels that could no longer provide basic services such as meals.

In 1815, the abandonment of the Easter Term potentially affected the studies of a few dozen undergraduates in training for the following January's Mathematical Tripos.  In 2019-20, almost eleven thousand postgraduate students have faced constraints of completing dissertation work, most of them reliant upon finite funding. The University launched an appeal to establish a hardship fund, highlighting some of the major areas of need. "Even a single term makes up a significant proportion of a degree, and our students will feel their absence from Cambridge keenly.... Some students felt the effects immediately at the beginning of the pandemic, forced to buy expensive tickets to travel home.... Some need better resources to study effectively at home, and some do not have homes they can return to at all. Every Cambridge student faces deep uncertainty and heightened anxiety.... Circumstances are preventing many PhD students from conducting their research, confronting them with the likelihood that they must extend their studies. Some, particularly in the sciences, may even need to start again from scratch. Their funding does not allow for the effects of a global pandemic."[190] Individual colleges also appealed for funds. The President of Hughes Hall, a notably international community, wrote to members and supporters of the college in late May."Students are encountering financial hardship on a scale never seen before and we must support student mental health, both those in college under lockdown and those trying to work from home in less than ideal circumstances."[191] The duplication of fund-raising will probably be seen to be justified because many graduates will feel a greater sense of identification with their colleges than with the more remote central institution. The underlying common problem that they all face is that funds are being sought at a time of economic disruption when friends of Cambridge may be better placed to offer goodwill than cash.

In the nineteenth century, colleges used endowment incomes to fund what they regarded as their core activities, the provision of fellowships and scholarships. The 1874 edition of the Student's Guide insisted that "the maintenance of Undergraduates is not made a source of profit to the College; all that is aimed at, in regulating College charges, is to make the establishment support itself".[192] This high-minded view probably began to break down during the agricultural depression that wiped out farm rents from the 1870s. The broad range of activities supported and services provided by modern-day colleges has generated far more complex business models, which of necessity rely heavily upon income from students. Traders in the town of Cambridge were estimated to have lost £60,000 through the loss of Easter Term business in 1815.  A statement issued in late April 2020 on behalf of all 31 colleges predicted combined losses of £60 million by the end of September, more than half of it from room rents but with substantial amounts also written off by the collapse of the Long Vacation conference trade. Caius alone was reported to expect a £1.66 million shortfall in receipts. In 1815, colleges almost certainly silently laid off the staff who provided services for undergraduates, the bedmakers and the waiters.[193] In 2020, their successors took advantage of the government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which covered eighty percent of the wages of staff placed on furlough, but colleges also committed themselves to paying the remaining twenty percent, so that employees would not lose overall.[194] One by-product of Covid-19 will probably be a fresh examination of the unequal distribution of resources between older and  newer colleges.

The abandonment of the Easter Term of 1815 may have prompted some to wonder whether any useful purpose was served by herding undergraduates into an East Anglian town for the unstructured summer months. The 2020 lockdown is likely to provoke far wider questions. The strong possibility of long-term rampant viral infections challenges the Cambridge tradition of small group, face-to-face teaching.  Although the days of supervisions with gowns and sherry are long gone, it remains to be seen whether the technical excellence of Zoom and Skype will generate a humane replacement: the physics is superb, but the chemistry may be lacking. On the plus side, the webcam might make possible a digital, virtual and global Cambridge, but the University is also celebrated for its libraries and laboratories, not to mention its atmospheric environment. William Whewell sneered at the "self-gratulation" of the era that had seen the invention of the electric telegraph. The far more complex communications technology of 2020 confronts Cambridge with a disturbing combination of opportunity and challenge.

"There are no provisions in the Statutes and Ordinances that explain how decisions are to be made in an emergency or what is to happen when the University must react at very short notice to government measures."[195] The University's statement of 17 June 2020 reflected a much greater emphasis upon governance than was displayed in 1815. Here, the identification of potential issues requires further hazardous exploration of the University's administrative structure. Just as evolution has created exotic and puzzling species in the magnificent isolation of the island of Madagascar, so the institutions that govern Cambridge, already peculiar in 1815, have mutated into a structure that does not lend itself to easy summary.[196] A few points may highlight the changes over two centuries.

Although the colleges still dominate the landscape of Cambridge, they are no longer capable of driving its agenda. It is unthinkable that Tutors in two large colleges could effectively pre-empt a University decision by ordering their students to go home. Heads of Houses now have more than enough to do providing leadership in their individual institutions, and have long since ceased to function as an unofficial but subtly controlling elite. Looking back in 1906 on early nineteenth-century Cambridge, F.W. Maitland remarked that "university politics hardly existed ... such were the independence and autonomy of the colleges, and so loose the bond between them." The reformers had aimed to create "a really efficient university and not a mere congeries of colleges."[197] One measure of their success might be that in the modern University, the conveners of the various boards, committees and syndicates that run its affairs were recognised during the crisis as informally constituting the sources of the wise counsel that was once forthcoming from the Heads in their Sunday gatherings at Great St Mary's.

The decline in the political importance of the colleges is reflected in the growth of a robust central bureaucracy, in contrast to the world of 1815, when most of the University officials, who were few in number, were concerned merely with routine administration or ceremonial matters. Since 1992, the office of Vice-Chancellor has been held by appointment for up to seven years "and the office may no longer [be] held in plurality with the headship of a college".[198] The nay-saying Caput was replaced in 1856 by the more broadly chosen Council of the Senate. Now simply known as the Council, it consists of 23 elected members. Theoretically subordinate but in practice operating in parallel, the General Board of the Faculties co-ordinates the educational work of the University. The General Board had no forerunner in 1815 because the University was then almost entirely an examining body. The Senate, comprising all graduates of MA status and above, retains the power of electing the Chancellor, but since 1926 its legislative functions have mostly devolved upon the Regent House, the membership of which is drawn from the teaching and administrative staff who actually run the University and the colleges. The Regent House has about 5,000 members; the Senate is a seemingly uncountable constituency that runs into hundreds of thousands.[199] In a pleasant continuity of tradition, the Regent House still registers its decisions through Graces.

In anticipation of the lockdown, both the Council and the General Board delegated authority to the Vice-Chancellor "should significant, rapid and unexpected changes relating to the coronavirus crisis require urgent decisions concerning the University’s business". Both also empowered chairs of their own committees "to take such decisions as they consider necessary".[200] However, it would be made clear that this delegation did not create "an unfettered authority" but "rather ... one granted solely for decisions related to the pandemic that were both necessary and required a rapid response." At the close of the Easter Term, the Council sought validation for the emergency procedures adopted. It was accepted that some  

decisions "were or may have been in breach of the rules set down in Ordinances and General Board Regulations". The Council made no apology for the actions taken: they were "required to manage the University’s operations at the time. It is too late to reverse most of those decisions." However, "in the interests of certainty for all concerned, the Council believes that it is important to seek the Regent House’s approval and ratification of any decisions which were taken in breach of Ordinances or of General Board Regulations". Graces were being submitted to "make an exception" where regulations "may have been breached, and to validate the relevant decisions, and actions taken in reliance upon them, both retrospectively and prospectively".[201] In 1815, the University's legislative body was asked to approve a concession that was virtually predicated upon a decision previously made by a small elite. In 2020, the onus was placed upon its successor to approve actions taken under delegation and in response to national policy.


Between February and May 1815, Cambridge was attacked by a fever, probably typhoid. Concern was focused upon the academic community, with little interest in casualties in the Town, and still less awareness of an occasionally mentioned epidemic in the surrounding villages. This artificial boxing-in of the outbreak in turn affected theories about its nature and cause: the false assumption that it targeted outsiders – students who were short-term residents – led to an association with the disaster that had overtaken British troops on Walcheren six years earlier, and hence to the notion of a Cambridge fever. In fact, the death toll among University people was small – between five and eight attributed to this particular malady – the uncertainty partly stemming from a robust acceptance that some young men died at Cambridge anyway.[202]  However, infection was probably more widespread: the case notes of local medic Thomas Verney Okes suggest a 12:1 ratio of serious cases to deaths, with at least as many patients experiencing relatively mild symptoms. If these figures are in any way accurate, then as many as 200 students might have fallen sick, even if only  mildly. This would account for the "loads" of letters cynically referred to by J.M.F. Wright, from worried parents demanding the return of their sons "dead or alive".  

Previous published references to the Cambridge fever have been brief, and have not mentioned the victims. Public concern comes to life once they acquire names and some personal information. The deaths of a young Fellow of Jesus, of an eighteen-year-old freshman and of two brothers – one of them fresh from an examination triumph –add a poignant dimension that helps to explain the sharp criticism of academic leadership in the press. Particularly damaging to the University was the evident awareness that its medical establishment, the Faculty of Physic, was somnolent, obscurantist and generally useless in the face of a local epidemic. Dealing with an era before mass polling, historians conventionally warn against equating newspaper comment with public opinion. In this case, the University's response clearly demonstrates that it was aware of the need to take action to allay "the anxiety of parents and friends". The biographers of Adam Sedgwick were probably in touch with Cambridge tradition when they wrote the Senate accepted the scrapping of the Easter Term "in deference to public opinion rather than from any conviction of the necessity of the measure".[203]

The decision to suspend the Easter Term of 1815 came in three waves. The first erupted unilaterally but severally, as Tutors in the individual colleges ordered their pupils to leave Cambridge late in the Lent Term. The second, taken on 11 April as the start of the Easter Term loomed, postponed the return of undergraduates to an artificially chosen date in late May. The Heads of Houses who pronounced the edict probably chose to ignore the obvious point that there would be little point in resuming a pastiche of academic activity so close to the University's long summer break. Moreover, their Delphic choice of words, that return was "not expedient", allowed at least one college, Trinity, to assemble its potentially most promising examination candidates, no doubt with the aim of gaining an advantage over their rivals in future Tripos examinations. Eventually, on 3 May, the Senate agreed to pretend that the Easter Term had actually happened without any students in residence, thereby freeing undergraduates from any need to turn up. The evolution of the overall response reflects the varying levels of flexibility within the different forms of decision-making. Tutors were almost entirely autonomous. The Heads of Houses exercised considerable but strategically undefined authority. The Vice-Chancellor was constrained by the veto power of any individual member of the Caput, while the response of the Senate could not be predicted at all. Hence, whereas earlier, Plague-driven shut-downs had been decreed by Grace, the suspension of activities in 1815 had to be enacted in stages, each one predicating its successor in a manner that limited the practical options of those central institutions that were most structurally resistant to change.

In the years following 1815, undergraduate numbers steadily increased, encouraging the erection of new collegiate buildings and generating a critical mass that supported a new student culture, for instance of organised sport. The post-Waterloo era also saw a gradual process of reform. "The old order changed," J.W. Clark wrote in 1882; "slowly and almost imperceptibly at first, but still it changed."[204] In 1822, an attempt was made to pour some worthwhile content into the Pass degree. In 1824, a new Tripos was created in Classics. Farcical disputations were gradually supplanted by written examinations as qualifications for a degree. By 1836, Sedgwick could describe recent reforms, a touch grandiosely, as having made Cambridge into "an integral part of the vast republic of science and literature".[205] Unfortunately, the pace of change was so stately that it can hardly be attributed to any seismic shock caused by the Cambridge fever of 1815: advances in medical training were notably sluggish. The most that can be suggested is that the decision to exile undergraduates from Cambridge during the Easter Term of 1815 probably prevented a much broader wave of sickness, maybe even a disaster on a scale that would have reduced enrolments for several years ahead. Concern both for educational standards and student recruitment would no doubt compel any modern University to respond to such a crisis by root-and-branch scrutiny of its activities. In late Georgian Cambridge, it would have undercut any attempts to bring about change.

This essay implicitly compares the level of medical care available in 1815 with the detective work that enabled George Buchanan to track down the source of Caius typhoid outbreak in 1873. It may be objected that this approach is anachronistic, that the surgeons, physicians and apothecaries of 1815 were simply not equipped to understand the infection that they tried unavailingly to combat. Yet Thomas Verney Okes evidently felt that his colleagues could have done more to study, and report upon, the nature of the Cambridge fever. Here was an academic community dealing with a relatively limited number of patients whose movements, contacts and diets might usefully have been examined, if only to provide data for the research of others. Four reasons may be suggested, however tentatively, to explain why the Cambridge fever produced no breakthrough in medical thinking. First, and perhaps above all, the miasmatic theory of infection – that sickness was somewhere transmitted through the air – imposed a straitjacket upon all diagnoses. Yet even here, the comparison with Buchanan at Caius is instructive. He blamed "sewer air" and set out to trace how it had reached its victims. A similar enquiry into King's Ditch air might have been instructive. A second cluster of causes may be noted in the internal divisions of the Cambridge medical community, the utter absence of intellectual leadership, and their role – denounced at the time – as interested parties who had personal and career reasons to portray Cambridge as a fundamentally healthful place. Professional jealousies, probably cloaked in an exaggerated concern for patient confidentiality, would have prevented any sharing of information that might have assembled some overall picture of the infection. The co-operation that was extended to Buchanan by Paget and Bradbury would have been unthinkable six decades earlier. It had never occurred to Pennington, the most senior medical academic, that his Chair entailed any obligations upon himself at all. His sole public statement on the Cambridge fever, the claim that it "was not of a contagious nature" issued jointly with Ingle and Woodhouse at the close of the outbreak, not only failed to explain why the fever had leaped across to Trinity early in April, but was blatantly designed to reassure the parents of future generations of Cambridge students. Third, we may note that medical research, such as it was, tended to be descriptive rather than explanatory. Okes may be credited with seeking to place on record some information about the outbreak, but even he was inclined to recite information without attempting to discuss its meaning: thus his tabulation of excess mortality figures remains useful and illuminating, but he did not draw the obvious point that the parishes along the northern section of the King's Ditch had the most additional deaths. Fourthly, we should not forget that even intellectuals operating on the frontiers of scientific knowledge subscribed to a view of the universe that centred upon a Creator. Thus for William Whewell, the existence of a Creator was not something to be deduced from observation of the natural world. Rather, it was a fundamental assumption that had to be built in to every exercise attempting comprehension and explanation. It followed that there were areas, particularly of catastrophe and pestilence, that were beyond human understanding, problems that could not and probably should not be investigated. In our modern secular world, it is tempting to dismiss Whewell's 1849 sermon on the cholera outbreak as the sort of hellfire flannel that was to be expected from a clergyman. But here we should note the contrast between Whewell's pulpit pronouncement that death was "but a rod in the hand of the Most High" with the energetic mobilisation of probability theory by Norman Ferrers of Caius, himself a clergyman, to test Buchanan's hypotheses. The mid-Victorian rational revolution was a watershed in the habits of thought.

It would be 205 years from the Cambridge fever of 1815 before the University again closed most of its activities and discouraged the attendance of its students. In reflections upon the discipline, I have urged fellow historians to think in longer blocks of time.[206] By concentrating upon recent centuries, historians may risk conferring an implied status of normality upon what may be transient features of the human experience. In particular, it is easy to assume that disease ceased to be a major threat to European societies with the mysterious retreat of bubonic plague in the 1660s. Subsequent epidemics, such as cholera, were less severe in both intensity and duration.[207] The Cambridge fever may remind us that even an apparently minor outbreak can cause considerable alarm and disruption. If we stand back even further, we may note that the bubonic plague pandemic that intermittently affected Europe between the 1340s and the 1660s was not the first visitation of that particular scourge: an earlier pandemic may be traced between 541 and 750, with severe outbreaks in England in 544-5 and 664-7.[208] A third pandemic emerged in the later nineteenth century, so that bubonic plague is still present in some parts of the world today. It is a chilling thought that it may operate a cycle embodying long centuries of downtime, and it could be gearing up to ravage our comfortable societies in the near future. Perhaps scholars of the twenty-fourth century will look back and define the Age of Low Infection, 1666-2019, with its innocent social interactions and naive confidence, at least in advanced societies, in the achievement of a natural lifespan. Cambridge has had a long run in avoiding having to confront the issue of closure for over 200 years since 1815 – or, to put it in an even longer context, just once in the three and a half centuries since Newton fled to his orchard – but this may have been an exceptionally lucky interlude, and it may also have come to a close. Covid-19 has challenged and almost certainly permanently reshaped our institutions and our values – in this case, Cambridge and scholarship. "This year's Easter Term has been unlike any other in our history."[209] Hughes Hall's July 2020 statement was a reasonable reflection from one of the fourteen Cambridge colleges that had not been founded in 1815. Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that there was an earlier occasion upon which students had to be sent away from Cambridge in the face of public concern at an outbreak of disease that forced the suspension of the University's activities.

ENDNOTES  I am grateful to Dr Andrew Jones for his comments on this essay.

 [1] I write this essay from my desk in County Waterford with at least two disadvantages. One is that I have no access to the town's newspaper, the Cambridge Chronicle, which was evidently the source used by Cooper in his Annals of Cambridge. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iv (Cambridge, 1852), 509-10 [cited as Cooper, Annals, iv] The other is that I have no medical qualifications. The first drawback is mitigated by the fact that newspapers around Britain, including those which are online in 2020, freely copied paragraphs. Since a key element in the University's collective decision-making to the epidemic was the need to respond to wider public opinion, the distant newspapers may be of greater importance than local publications. I hope the second may also be less of a disqualification than it might appear. The Cambridge medics of the day had very little understanding of the sickness that threatened the town, and – unlike them – I have access to Wikipedia. In any case, the story is less about the nature of the epidemic as the manner of the University's response. I use the lower-case form, fever, as in contemporary reports, and because the upper case would tend to endorse that the University had been hit by some unique and inexplicable pestilence. R. Yeo, "Whewell, William (1794–1866)...", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (as of July 2020) seems unwise in referring to the outbreak as "plague".

[2] Aestivation refers to the process by which some living creatures become torpid or dormant in hot weather. Conventional English uses the term hibernation to describe periods of inactivity, but that refers to winter, the season when Cambridge came to life.

[3] J.P.C. Roach, in Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire..., iii (1959), 102.  [cited as VCH, iii]. "In consequence of the scarcity of victuals, and in anticipation of the plague", Easter Term was virtually abandoned in 1556. The start of the Michaelmas term was delayed by three weeks in 1563 "on account of the plague then prevailing in Cambridge". In 1580, the Lent Term was cut short (but not very short) on 10 March "[i]n consequence of the plague".  In response to an outbreak late in 1593, "members of the Colleges dispersed themselves into the country", and University activities (usually defined as sermons at Great St Mary's and public disputations, the forerunner of the examinations system) were suspended until 20 February 1594. An outbreak of plague during October and November 1603 (when the dead of St Clement's parish were buried on Jesus Green) led to a decision on 9 November to suspend University activities. In 1605 and 1608, the decision was made as early as 10 October, which presumably wiped out much of the Michaelmas Term. In 1625, suspension was announced on 29 October. "Our Butcher, Baker, & Chandler bring ye provisions to the Colledg," wrote a student of Christ's on 24 April 1630. Only 7 out of 27 members of the college were in residence, living as "close prisoners": "... none must stirre out", although a sizar, an expendable poor student, was specially commissioned to run errands. "Yea we have taken 3 Women into our Colledge & appointed them a Chamber to lye in together. Two are Bedmakers, one a Launderesse. I hope the next Parliament will include us in ye generall Pardon. We have turned out our Porter & appointed our Barber both Porter and Barber, allowing him a Chamber next ye gates." Trinity determined that "the whole societie of this colledge should break up" from 30 April 1630, and that nobody should "expect ingresse or regresse into the said colledge till it please God to lessen or remove the great danger in which we live." The University abandoned its Easter Term on 19 May. Commons, the service of meals, did not resume at Trinity until 20 November. A suspected outbreak in the summer of 1637 led many members of the University to seek leave of absence. Plague broke out in May 1638, forcing the cancellation the Commencement, an annual academic festival in July. "On the 2nd of October, a grace passed putting off all lectures in the University on account of the plague." A  Grace (Senate resolution) passed on 6 June 1642 closed the University indefinitely "on account of the plague", conferring power upon the Vice-Chancellor and Heads of Houses to re-open the institution. Individual colleges made their own responses to plague: King's "dispersed" early in January 1644, leaving just the Provost and six senior Fellows "to uphold ye face of a Colledge". William Sancroft, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was proud of the resilience of his Emmanuel students in the face of an outbreak in May 1646. "The University is not dissolved; no college stirs but Christ's, in whose vicinage the infection is. We are next to them, but our lads budge not, being more courageous than ever I knew them in the like danger." During the last great epidemic, the University closed on 10 October 1665. In Corpus Christi, just one Fellow, two Scholars and a handful of servants remained, "for whom a preservative power was brought and administered in wine, whilst charcoal, pitch, and brimstone were kept constantly burning in the Gatehouse."  C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, ii (Cambridge, 1843), 105, 178, 373, 522; C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii (Cambridge, 1845), 3, 19, 30, 181, 222-3, 287, 290-1, 325, 383-4, 400, 517-18.

[4] "Heads of Houses" because Trinity Hall has never styled itself a college, and nor in 1815 did Clare, Clare Hall until 1856, and St Catharine's, which was Catharine Hall until 1860. Peterhouse was also known as St Peter's College. King's was (and is) headed by a Provost, Queens' by a President.  The informal equivalent "Heads of Colleges" was sometimes used.

[5] "Such a permission was of course largely taken advantage of, and the public life of the University practically ended on the day the above Grace passed." J.W. Clark and T.McK. Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick (2 vols, Cambridge, 1890), i, 135.

 [6] The Times, 15 March 1815.

[7]  The Times, 24 March 1815.

[8] Venn indicates that a number of former students, mostly fellow commoners, had moved on to serve in the Army and fought at Waterloo.  Some veterans also enrolled at Cambridge later.

Between 5 and 10 April 1815, Mount Tambora in the East Indies (Indonesia) erupted with such force that it obscured skies around the world, reducing temperatures and causing much distress into 1816. This eruption is an example of an episode long omitted from textbooks, but which is now seen as one of the outstanding events of that landmark year. I mention it here to make clear that it had no influence on the Cambridge fever outbreak.

[9] J.R. Tanner, ed., The Historical Register of the University of Cambridge ... to the Year 1910 (Cambridge, 1917), 990. For general background, I have used E. Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1996); VCH, iii, 235 ff. and D.A. Winstanley, Early Victorian Cambridge (Cambridge, 1955) [cited as EVC], which sensibly extends the early Victorian era back to 1800. Biographical information comes from Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses, now available through I have also drawn upon my own attempt to capture the ethos of the University in The Cambridge Union and Ireland, 1815-1914 (Edinburgh, 2000), 26-75. References are sparing to general points from these sources.

[10] G. Johnson, University Politics... (Cambridge. 1994), 9.

[11]  VCH, iii, 235 quotes an article by J.A. Venn which I have been unable to consult. For longer-term comparisons between Oxford and Cambridge, W.W. Rouse Ball, A History of the Study of Mathematics at Cambridge (Cambridge, 1889), 248-9.

[12]  Late-18th-century Cambridge had been associated with the Evangelical movement, which demanded morality and good behaviour from the young, but the Evangelicals had been confined to a few of the smaller colleges and their influence was on the wane after 1800. The Cambridge curriculum was dominated by mathematics, unlike Oxford which was more faithful to the Classics. English schools were not well-equipped to prepare pupils for mathematical studies. It would be pleasant to think of Cambridge mathematics helping to power the Industrial Revolution, but there is little evidence of any association. It is, in any case, hard to imagine how Cambridge's devotion to conic sections and planetary theory would have helped operate a cotton mill. Cambridge was regarded as having a more rational attitude to religion than Oxford, but both were Anglican-only institutions, which made them unattractive to large sections of the middle classes.

[13] One problem in estimating undergraduate numbers is lack of information about the drop-out rate. Luard's Graduati makes possible a contrast between matriculations, and the numbers graduating 3 years later. Thus in 1812, there were 242 matriculations (209 of pensioners and sizars if we discount noblemen and fellow commoners as serious students). 164 made it to graduation with BA, LLB or MB degrees (159 of these being BAs). The figures for 1813/16 are matriculations 253 (195 pensioners and sizars), first degree graduations 186. For 1814/17, the figures are matriculations 297 (242 pensioners and sizars), first degree graduations 206. Drop-outs were thus 1812/15, 78; 1813/16, 67; 1814/17, 91: if most of the casualties were among noblemen and fellow commoners, the wastage rate among pensioners and sizars may have been relatively low. Assuming that drop-outs left after their first year, the undergraduate population by the end of the Lent Term 1815 would have been (first year), 297, (second and third years) 350, giving a total of 647. In 1822, a pamphleteer reported that an average of 146 students had graduated between 1819 and 1821, 52 achieving Honours and 94 with the Pass degree. But matriculations had averaged 306 between 1816 and 1818, suggesting that more than half had dropped out, again probably after one year. This may suggest that the rising numbers entering Cambridge were not matched by an overall improvement in academic ability: it is noticeable that candidates classed in the Mathematics Tripos did not greatly increase. If the 1819-21 estimate were applied to matriculations between 1812 and 1814, this would point to around 550 undergraduates in residence by March 1815. H.R. Luard, Graduati Cantabrigienses ... (Cambridge, 1873), 532-3, 542; Eubulus, Thoughts on the Present System of Academic Education in the University of Cambridge (London, 1822), (in The Pamphleteer, xx, 1822). Luard's compilation must have been one of the last hurrahs of official Latin in the University. Luard was University Registrary from 1862 to 1891.

[14] In 1811, the census was taken in May, when 4th-year students had left but the remaining three years should have been in residence. The census returned a figure of 814 (all male) for the University. Matriculations between 1808 and 1810 totalled 631. Matriculations for 1812-14 were 792, from which I would project a total University community of about 1,000.  Annual editions of the Calendar listed college residents by name, but it is not clear how many were actually in Cambridge at any one time.

[15] EVC, 58.

[16] The Cambridge University Calendar for the Year 1818 (322) gives statistics for membership of the Senate by colleges. Since membership of the Senate was open to Masters of Arts, a degree acquired 7 years after entering the University, this may be taken as roughly representing the cumulative size of the colleges up to 1815. Trinity had 31%, St John's 24%, and the rest 45%. Downing, the 17th college, had yet to admit students.

[17] G. Peacock, Observations on the Statutes of the University of Cambridge (London, 1841), 45;  EVC, 29.

[18] Cooper, Annals, iv, 469. The Vice-Chancellor, William Gretton of Magdalene, and 12 Heads signed. The other 4 were either absent or too devoted to their confectionary.

[19] EVC, 72.

[20] EVC, 29-30; Searby, 47-8.

[21] EVC, 161-3; H. Gunning, Reminiscences of the University, Town, and County of Cambridge from the Year 1780 (2nd ed., 2 vols, London 1855), ii, 182-3 [cited as Gunning]. No explanation was supplied for the change of position. The most that can be said in defence of the Heads is that none of the 9 signatories of 1804 supported – or, in all likelihood, took part in – the 1815 meeting.

[22] Cooper, Annals, iv, 449; Gunning, ii, 182-3. Craven did not sign the 1804 decree, but possessed no right of veto as unanimity was evidently not required. He died 3 weeks after the 1815 climb-down, and was probably too ill to attend the second meeting.

[23] Cooper, Annals, iv, 534, 604, 615, 650.

[24] EVC, 126-7, 16-7; Cooper, Annals, iv, 668.

[25] Cooper, Annals, iv, 570.

[26] EVC, 406; Ged Martin, The Cambridge Union and Ireland, 1815-1914, 107-8..

[27] Peacock, Observations on the Statutes of the University of Cambridge, 143.

[28] It may be worth noting that it was stated in 2020, "no provisions in the Statutes and Ordinances that explain how decisions are to be made in an emergency". Cambridge University Reporter, 17 June 2020.

[29] Cooper, Annals, iii, 3 (1603), 19 (1605), 30 (1609), 181 (1625), 223 (1630), 291 (1638), 325 (1642), 517 (1665).

[30] The exercises in the Schools were the forerunners of the examination system. They included acts and disputations, in which students were paired, roughly by ability, to debate propositions, in Latin. Leedham-Green delightfully sends up the way these rituals had degenerated with weaker students by the 18th century: "one student would mount the rostrum and say 'Recte statuit Newtonus' (Newton is right), to which his opponent on the other rostrum would solemnly reply, 'Non recte statuit Newtonus' (No he wasn't). They would then change places and repeat the exercise." As a third-year undergraduate, William Whewell was preparing for such an exercise, called 'Keeping an Act', when the Cambridge fever broke out in 1815: "it consists in a person getting up into a box to defend certain mathematical and moral questions, from the bad arguments and worse Latin of three men who are turned loose into an opposite box to bait him with syllogisms." Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge, 123; I. Todhunter, William Whewell …:  an Account of his Writings.… (2 vols, London, 1876), i, 5 93 January 1815).

[31] Cooper, Annals, iii, 325.

[32] Cooper, Annals, iii, 228. For 17th-century population estimates, V. Morgan with C. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge: Volume 2, 1546-1750 (Cambridge, 2004), 247-8. The 1811 census returned 10,294 in the Town, and 814 in the University, total 11,108 (Cooper, Annals, iv, 494.

[33] The analogy should not be pressed too far. "The Vice-Chancellor is not a Prime Minister.... University history is not in the habit of referring to 'the enlightened Vice-Chancellorship of X', or 'the inspiring leadership of Y'." R. J. White, Cambridge Life (London, 1960), 103-4.

[34] Christopher Wordsworth became Vice-Chancellor almost immediately after his appointment as Master of Trinity in 1820. Looking back in 1845, he wondered how he could have been "at all in a fit condition to undertake two such offices at once in my additional circumstances of novelty and inexperience." EVC, 58.

[35] EVC, 29-30.

[36] Thackeray's surname may cause confusion.  He was first cousin once removed to the writer William Makepeace Thackeray, briefly a student at Trinity in 1829-30, and also distantly related to Frederick Thackeray, a prominent Town physician. Frederick's brother Martin was later Vice-Provost of King's, making him George's deputy.

[37] EVC, 236-7; J.P.T. Bury, ed., Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1832-42 (Cambridge, 1967), 36 (26 June 1833).

[38] The Cambridge University Calendar for the Year 1818, 3, stated that "in general the Vice-Chancellor's list is honoured by the appointment." For the Caput, P. Searby, A History of the University of Cambridge, iii: 1750-1850 (Cambridge, 1997), 53-4 [cited as Searby].

[39] B.C. Raworth, The Cambridge University Calendar for the Year 1801, 2.

[40] B.D. Walsh, Historical Account of the University of Cambridge, and its Colleges ... (2nd ed., London, 1837), 32. The Caput was abolished in 1856.

[41] E.g. Cooper, Annals, iv, 580.

[42] Peacock, Observations on the Statutes of the University of Cambridge, 143.

[43] Thackeray's predecessor as Vice-Chancellor, William Chafy, the Master of Sidney Sussex, had tried to use the Caput to block the introduction into the Senate of a Grace for an address calling for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Britain had outlawed its slave trade in 1807, and pressed other nations to follow suit. The proposed address complained that not enough had been done. Chafy claimed this was an attack on Lord Liverpool's administration, which he supported. Technically, Chafy's right to block the Grace as Vice-Chancellor was doubtful, but he claimed to be acting in the absence of Philip Douglas, Master of Corpus Christi, a member of the Caput who was convalescing at his home town of Witham in Essex. Douglas returned to Cambridge in time to endorse the Grace, which was passed by the Senate with only two dissentient votes, one of them from Chafy.  Gunning, ii, 269-70. 

[44] Venn implies that Jefferson was elected to a Fellowship in 1815. In fact, this had happened at some earlier date, as shown by his selection to preach the University Sermon in November 1814. Norfolk Chronicle, 12 November 1814.

[45] Cambridge adopted the workaday PhD in 1920. Other doctoral degrees are still referred to as "higher doctorates".


[47] Davie's appointment as Vice-Chancellor underlines the absurdity of the system of the annual appointment of an inexperienced Head of House. "The delicate state of his health made him ill fitted for the office", and he was absent from Cambridge for about his term of office. He was 36 when he died, a further reminder of the fragility of life in that era. Gunning, ii, 265-6. Venn is misleading in implying that Cory served a full second term as Vice-Chancellor in 1813-14: Tanner, ed., The Historical Register of the University of Cambridge, 27.

[48] Searby, 189.

[49] Bury, ed., Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1832-42, 157 (17 November 1838). Geldart's surname came from Yorkshire. He inherited property in that county, including the advowson of Kirk Deighton, to which benefice he presented himself in 1840.

[50] A decade earlier, Lord Palmerston quoted a contemporary at St John's who criticised students "who go to town with the sober intention of keeping a law term, and then discover it is equally necessary to go dancing about with all the girls for a fortnight afterwards."  K. Bourne, ed., The Letters of the Third Viscount Palmerston to Laurence and Elizabeth Sulivan 1804-1863 (London, 1979), 40 (19 May 1805).

[51] J. Venn, Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College (3 vols, Cambridge, 1897-1901), iii, 137n. Four of Woodhouse's portraits, including an impressive study of Henry Gunning, are on

[52] Bury and Norwich Post, 21 December 1814; Cooper, Annals, iv, 510.

[53] VCH, iii, 106-8; Leedham-Greene, Concise History of the University of Cambridge, 111.

[54]  A. Rook, M. Carlton and W.G. Cannon, History of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge (Cambridge, 2010), 83-4. Woodhouse defeated Haviland by 105 votes to 67 in December 1814. But Haviland had been elected to the Professorship of Anatomy a month earlier, out-polling William ("Bone") Clark of Trinity by 15 votes, but routing Woodhouse by 150 votes to 60. Perhaps Addenbrooke's was a consolation prize, although it would not have been easy to herd academic opinion in such numbers. Bury and Norwich Post, 21 December; Norfolk Chronicle, 26 November 1814 (Cooper, Annals, iv, 509). The two positions were both vacant because of the recent death of Harwood, who is discussed below.

[55] These are among the treatments mentioned by T.V. Okes in his 1815 pamphlet, Observations upon the fever lately prevalent in Cambridge.

[56] EVC, 3.

[57] In December 1833, the body of a pauper was mistakenly consigned to the Anatomy School for dissection. The deceased had lived in the packed Town Centre parish of Holy Trinity, and was probably well known locally. The Anatomical Theatre was severely damaged in a riot. Although the ringleaders were arrested, the authorities did not dare prosecute. The body was returned for burial. Cooper, Annals, iv, 579.

[58] London had a population of around one million by 1801, Dublin about 170,000, Edinburgh over 90,000 and Glasgow rapidly growing from 80,000. Cambridge, with 12,000 people, was not in the same league for destitution.

[59] Arguably, the Cambridge area not only produced too few usable corpses but also failed to generate enough live patients for Addenbrooke's to function effectively as a teaching hospital. In the 1790s, the total annual average number of in-patients was 333; in 1803, average bed occupancy was just 25. VCH, iii, 107; Rook, et al., History of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, 89.

[60] Searby, 199-201; VCH, iii, 108; M.W. Weatherall, Gentlemen, Scientists, and Doctors: Medicine at Cambridge 1800-1940 (Woodbridge, 2000), 37-8, 53-7 argues that Haviland's reforms were less sweeping than has sometimes been claimed, and that he acted in response to external pressure. But he did at least deliver lectures.

[61] G. Dyer, History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge... (2 vols, London, 1814), ii, 442-3.

[62] Gunning relates how Harwood persuaded two widely trusted Cambridge figures that some Peterhouse academics were planning to make a presentation in his honour, but that he feared that they were unworldly characters who "would in all probability make a bungling affair of it". The two friends agreed to form a committee that would take over the project.  This group decided that Harwood was so popular that a limit of two guineas should be placed on individual subscriptions. However, they received an anonymous letter from a donor who insisted that "he was under very great obligations to the Professor": enclosed was a banknote for £50. It was assumed that the Peterhouse admirers were fictitious, and that Harwood himself was the source of the bumper donation. Gunning, ii, 150-1.

[63] Cooper, Annals, iv, 462.

[64] Gunning, i, 50-1.

[65] R. Williamson, "Sir Busick Harwood: a Reappraisal", Medical History (xxvii, 1983). 423-33.

[66] I suspect that the nickname was in widespread use. For traces, see H.D. Rolleston, The Cambridge Medical School: a Biographical History (Cambridge, 1932), 164 and Berrow's Worcester Journal, 1 August 1825.

[67] Weatherall, Gentlemen, Scientists, and Doctors: Medicine at Cambridge 1800-1940, 23; Gunning, i, 54. Although not mentioned in his entry in Venn, it seems that for 50 years he held the Linacre Lectureship in Physic at St John's, an appointment that dated back to 1524. No Linacre Lectures were delivered during his term of office.

[68] Weatherall, Gentlemen, Scientists, and Doctors: Medicine at Cambridge 1800-1940, 25.

[69] Bury and Norwich Post, 9 November 1808; F.B. Smith, The People's Health 1830-1910 (London, 1979), 159-60; M.J. Murphy, Cambridge Newspapers and Opinion 1780-1850 (Cambridge, 1977), 50. Pennington did at least own an extensive medical library, which he left to his college, St John's. It may be explored on

[70] EVC, 160-2; Gunning, ii, 179-83.  Isaac Milner, President of Queens', generally considered one of the positive figures of contemporary Cambridge, was among the signatories of this rigid interpretation of the Statute. As Winstanley pointed out, Pennington was less severe in the interpretation of statutory requirements relating to himself. Cory as Master of Emmanuel insisted on returning Thackeray's fees. The prohibition was quietly rescinded in January 1815, after William Pearce, Master of Jesus, survived what sounds to have been a stroke thanks to the attentions of a similarly ineligible mature student. Thackeray took his MB shortly afterwards.

[71] He may have been related to Thomas Okes, Fellow of King's 1753, who practised medicine in Exeter. This Okes took a medical doctorate in 1769: his Duae dissertations... are wrongly attributed (as of July 2020) to Thomas Verney Okes in Cambridge University Library's online catalogue.

[72] T.V Okes, An Account of the Providential Preservation of Eliz. Woodcock ... (2nd ed., Cambridge [1799]0, 47.

[73] The Medical and Physical Journal, xxiv (1810), 341-3, reviewing T.V. Okes, An Account of Spina Bifida… (Cambridge, 1810). There is no copy listed in Cambridge University Library's online catalogue.

[74] Gunning, ii, 200-1.

[75] Gunning, i, 50.

[76] T.V. Okes, Observations upon the fever lately prevalent in Cambridge (Cambridge, 1815), 5 [cited as Okes]. Most quotations from the Okes pamphlet are made without page references, since they are easily traceable via the website. [At the conclusion of the first draft of this essay, I became aware (as no doubt I should have discovered earlier) that Professor John Haviland delivered a paper on the Cambridge fever to the Royal College of Physicians in May 1815. He treated few patients. As his account was notably less informative than that of Okes, I have left the text as originally completed, and add appropriate comments to endnotes in square brackets. J. Haviland "Some Observations concerning the Fever which prevailed at Cambridge during the Spring of 1815", Medical Transactions (Royal College of Physicians of London), v, 1815, 381-99, cited as Haviland.]  

[77] Stamford Mercury, 6 January 1815. Venn adds that Keck died in his rooms in Queens'. Basil Keck was buried at Grantchester, where his family established a memorial trust. As late as 1967, it made an annual grant of £1 to 21 widows. ["The winter of 1814 was mild, without any unusual degree of sickness; a few cases only of fever occurred, but they were not violent, and the patients recovered easily after a week or ten days' confinement," Haviland reported. By late January, there was "a good deal of illness in the town, but still not enough to create alarm." Haviland, 382-3.]

[78] Cooper, Annals, iv, 510.

[79] W. Otter, The Life and Remains of Edward Daniel Clarke (New York, 1827), 442. He was living in Trumpington Street at the time, opposite St Catherine's: "the fine grove of trees in front of that College keeps the summer sun off from the front rooms". The site is now occupied by Corpus Christi's New Court, built shortly after his death in 1822. Ibid., 406-7. [Clarke's testimony undermines Haviland's claim that he did not "know of a single member of the university above the age of thirty years who was ill of fever". Haviland, 398.]

[80] These parishes included the central area of the Town, which suffered badly from cholera in 1873.

[81] The parish tables are given in Okes, 29-30. I have not traced parish boundaries or areas, but St Sepulchre and St Clements seem to have been small parishes, although – like Holy Trinity – densely populated. Although All Saints church stood opposite Trinity College (until its demolition for road-widening in 1856), its parish extended eastward to include Sidney Sussex and Jesus Colleges: the Victorian replacement church was erected some distance along Jesus Lane.

[82] Stamford Mercury, 7 April 1815.

[83] Okes, 24. [Haviland denied this. Haviland, 398-9.]

[84] Angelica Clarke, wife of the Professor of Geology, was bled after being taken ill with fever in 1821. She had "eighteen leeches upon her temples, and forty ounces of blood taken away – twenty from either arm". The treatment left her "extended upon her bed ... with her head in a state of distraction". She was 7 months pregnant. Clarke appears to have been the only member of the family to have escaped infection, describing "all my poor children, with leeches upon their temples, like false curls". Otter, Life and Remains of Edward Daniel Clarke, 477 (23 September 1821). Clarke described the illness as "the Cambridge fever": fortunately, this outbreak occurred during the vacation.

[85] VCH, iii, 107; The History of the London House of Recovery (London, 1817), 3-4, 8-10; Rook et al., History of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, 120, 89. See also Smith, The People's Health 1830-1910, 241-4.

[86] Okes wrote of a patient that "he tottered as he walked from the bed to the sofa".

[87] Smith, The People's Health 1830-1910, 244-9.

[88] E.g. a description of an 1832 outbreak in Limehouse, "a congestive fever of a typhoid type", Lancet, i (1832), 35.

[89] Okes, 10; S. Halliday, "Death and Miasma in Victorian London: an obstinate belief", British Medical Journal, 2001, 1469-71.

[90] R. Moorehead, "William Budd and Typhoid Fever", Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, xcv (2002), 561-4.

[91] Okes, 8; J. Lynch, "The Lessons of Walcheren Fever, 1809", Military Medicine, clxxix (2009), 315-19; Martin R Howard, "Walcheren 1809: a medical catastrophe", British Medical Journal, 1999, 1642-5.  A French clinician, J-P. Tresal, suggested in 1815 that strangers had contracted malaria, an illness to which the locals had acquired immunity. I have not traced any influence of this argument in the Cambridge debate. Walcheren Fever was also sometimes called Flushing Sickness, from the principal Zeeland port of Vlissingen. Much misunderstanding has presumably been avoided by the disappearance of this term.

[92] The open and covered sections of the King's Ditch may be studied through the detailed map of Cambridge made by Willian Custance in 1798, and superbly digitised for minute examination by Cambridge University Library:

[93] The distinguished medieval historian Helen M. Cam, who contributed the section on the Town of Cambridge to the Victoria County History, accepted the verdict of Okes that the King's Ditch could not have caused the outbreak. VCH, iii, 103. [By contrast, although cautious about identifying the cause of the fever, Haviland attributed it  "in great measure, on the state of the drains and ditches which have been much neglected of late, while the population has greatly increased." He too noted, in May 1815: "Active measures are now taking [sic] to remove this cause of complaint." Haviland, 398 and note.] 

[94] VCH, iii, 103.

[95] C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, ii (Cambridge, 1843), 322-3 (21 November 1874).

[96] VCH, iii, 101, 103.

[97] The northern end of the King's Ditch joined the Cam opposite Magdalene's Pepys Building, and by 1798 had been covered over by housing a round Thompsons Lane. Extensions leading to Jesus College joined the Cam near today's Park Parade.

[98] Okes, 8, 27. The University Library was located in the heart of Cambridge, off Senate House Passage.

[99] Cooper, Annals, iv, 510 (24 May 1815). [Haviland thought it "a very interesting question ... whether or not the fever was infectious". His initial conclusion that it was not infectious was undermined by the case of a a servant girl from one of the colleges where there were fever cases. she became ill and was sent to her family home at Stretham Ferry. There other members of the household  became sick, and her father died. Haviland, 395-6.]

[100] Laws and Transactions of the Union Society ... (Cambridge, 1834), 11.

[101] The Cambridge Union Society: Inaugural Proceedings (London, 1866), 8, 25. These reminiscences were delivered at the opening ceremony of the Union's permanent buildings in 1866. Milnes was by then Lord Houghton. Of the 13 recorded orators during the Union's first term, 11 were from Trinity, with one from St John's and one from Caius. Ged Martin, The Cambridge Union and Ireland, 308.

[102]  J.M. (Mrs Stair) Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell (London, 1881), 15 (22 March 1815); EVC, 18-28; Gunning, ii, 278-9. Whewell is first recorded as speaking in 1817, but the Union's early records were defective.

[103] In one of his last major contributions to the study of typhoid, William Budd took charge of "a great emergency" at a Bristol convent, which included a reformatory for girls. He noted 5 fatal cases, with death coming at between 5 and 16 days after falling ill. W. Budd, Typhoid Fever: its Nature, Mode of Spreading, and Prevention (London, 1881), 128-33.

[104] Although fever cases were by now numerous, Alty's death does not seem to have triggered immediate alarm. On 13 March, 75 members of the Union gathered to debate "Was the War in 1793 justifiable?", voting in the affirmative by 49 to 26. With Bonaparte on the loose, it is understandable that the topic drew the largest audience of the Term. Laws and Transactions of the Union Society, 11. 

[105] The Chapel inscription forms part of the biographical note in J.F. Smith, The Admission Register of the Manchester School... (Manchester, 1866), 238-9, which also points out that Alty had apparently rejected the conventional Fellowship path to ordination. His fiancée came from a Liverpool fringe community called Knotty Ash, which in the late 20th century would acquire a minor niche in British popular culture, through the comedian Ken Dodd. There were reports of his death in Bury and Norwich Post, 15 March, Jackson's Oxford Journal, 18 March, Liverpool Mercury, 24 March and Lancaster Gazetter, 25 March 1815.

[106] Bury and Norwich Post, Stamford Mercury, both 22 March 1815. King Street ran at right angles from the line of the King's Ditch, but the location of Atkinson's lodgings is unknown.

[107] Jackson's Oxford Journal, 1 April 1815. Another member of Jesus College, Charles Heneage Robinson, had died at his family home at Papplewick in Nottinghamshire on 4 March 1815.  He had matriculated in 1813, but may not have remained in residence.

[108] Jackson's Oxford Journal, 1 April 1815; EVC, 386. Millward (sometimes Milward) came from Jamaica. His father owned the Mount Pleasant Plantation but lived in Spanish Town. He had been at school at Charterhouse. A third death at Emmanuel is mysterious. Edward John Staunton was a Fellow Commoner in his second term: his family claimed to have lived at Staunton Hall in Nottinghamshire since the Norman Conquest. He died "[a]t Cambridge" (Stamford Mercury, 17 March 1815), "lately" (Gentleman's Magazine, 1815 (i), 282). Staunton's death had apparently occurred early in March. Whewell referred to deaths from other causes within the University, and this may be one of them. Another Fellow Commoner, William Bloxam, admitted in 1813, died at Highgate on 25 February 1815. This appears to have been unrelated to the Cambridge fever.

[109] Stamford Mercury, 24 March; Hereford Journal, 29 March; Chester Chronicle, 31 March 1815. [Haviland was critical of these reports. "A university affords great facilities to the general diffusion of an alarm of such a nature. Young men are collected together from all directions; no sooner does a report prevail of the existence of a fever, then it flies to every county, and almost every town in England, and in its course acquires additional strength: the natural fears and anxiety of friends and parents magnify the alarm, till those persons who are on the spot can scarcely recognize the place in which they are quietly and fearlessly living". Haviland, 381-2.]

[110] Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 15 (22 March 1815). Whewell remained in residence during the vacation partly because he was in training for next January's Tripos, but also because Trinity was conducting Scholarship examinations.

[111] The Times, 31 March 1815.  The Times does not seem to have commented on the outbreak before that date. Two of his Headly's sons, born in 1814 and 1835, later entered the University. He was presumably the Henry Headly who was active in civic politics after municipal reform in 1835. For a time during the 1830s he was Joseph Romilly's doctor.

[112] Leeds Intelligencer, 3 April; Leeds Mercury, 1, 8 April 1815.

[113] Their mother, Christabell Burroughes, was the widow of a Norfolk squire and herself a pioneer landscape gardener. Edward was a freshman from Eton. Their death notice in The Times states that Edward died "at his rooms, at Emanuel [sic] College", James "at St. Catherine's-hill". From the poor type-setting of the death notice, and the difficulty of identifying any street called St Catherine's Hill, either in Cambridge or in Norwich, I initially assumed that it indicated that James had recently made an unrecorded move to St Catharine's College, then known as Catharine Hall. However, information on flickr suggests that the Burroughes family kept a town house of that name in Norwich. A memorial to the brothers in the church at North Burlingham, Norfolk says they "died of an infectious Fever which they caught whilst pursuing their studies at Cambridge". Their joint funeral was on 10 April. The entry in Venn suggests that James Burroughes had not yet formally taken his degree. The brothers were not connected with the similarly named Samuel Burroughs who had died at Jesus two weeks earlier. Okes reported that one of his patients had died on 3 April, having fallen ill on 18 March. This was probably James Burroughes.    //  

[114] Stamford Mercury, 7 April; Lancaster Gazetter, 8 April 1815. Wilson's father, Thomas, was a solicitor at Poulton-le-Fylde. Wilson was treated by a relative, Richard Harrison, who published an account of the case: Richard Harrison, "A Statement of Two Cases of Fever which occurred at Cambridge", Medical Transactions (Royal College of Physicians of London), v, 1815, 400-28. Harrison refused to speculate on the cause of the fever.  

[115] Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 16 (4 April 1815) for the quotations in the following paragraphs. [Haviland insisted that Trinity and St John's each had only one case of fever, but he seems to have ruled out those who had minor symptoms. Haviland, 396.] 

[116] [J.M.F. Wright], Alma Mater, or, Seven years at the University of Cambridge (2 vols, London, 1827), i, 187-9.

[117] For instance, he stated that the Cambridge fever broke out at St John's as well as Jesus, and believed that undergraduates were sent away by a Grace of the Senate.

[118] In 1810, John Newby was a witness in a libel action, in which the Earl of Leicester sued the Morning Herald, for reporting the allegations of his estranged wife that he was impotent and engaged in a homosexual relationship with a servant. The eldest son of the Marquess Townshend, he had entered Trinity as a Nobleman in 1798 using the courtesy title Lord Ferrers of Chartley. Newby recalled him as "an eccentric character" who wore a pink gown instead of the usual purple garment appropriate to his rank: "he dressed his hair effeminately, and was called Miss Leicester, Miss Chartley, &c. in derision." (I am not aware that the colour pink had any association with homosexuality at that time.) Although "notorious reports, accusing Lord Leicester of infamous and unnatural crimes, were prevalent in college", Newby did not believe them. "Many gentlemen in the college, however, were like ladies." Lord Leicester won his case, although the judge commented that the damages (£1,000) "were liable to mitigation, from the circumstances of the evidence". In 1825, Newby gave evidence in the case of the sanity of the Reverend Edward Frank, who had also entered Trinity in 1798, as a Fellow-Commoner. Revisiting Cambridge, Frank had invited Newby to his inn, where he had "boasted of the favours bestowed upon him by the virtuous females of Grantham, and exposed his person." The commission in lunacy rejected Newby's opinion that Frank was "not in a sound state of mind", concluding that he was "a very weak and very eccentric man". John Newby's son Thomas became a publisher, notorious for exploiting first-time authors: Emily Bronte and Anthony Trollope were among his victims. The New Annual Register: or General Repository of History..., lii (1810), 87-91; Examiner, 8 August, 1825, 500-4; E.S. Arbuckle, "Newby, Thomas Cautley", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. For Newby's anecdotes of great men in their student days, [Wright], Alma Mater, or, Seven years at the University of Cambridge, ii, 153-4.

[119] Clark and Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, i, 135-6 (22 May 1815). Dent, Sedgwick's home town, was transferred to Cumbria for administrative purposes in 1975.

[120] Bury and Norwich Post, 5 April 1815.

[121] Stamford Mercury, 7 April, quoted Leeds Intelligencer, 10 April, and Chester Chronicle, 21 April 1815.

[122] F.B. Head, A Fortnight in Ireland (London, 1852), 124.

[123] E.D. Clarke published observations on the Cambridge fever in the Courier, a London newspaper, under the name of 'Senex'. I have not traced this item.

[124] Easter Term formally commenced on the Wednesday week after Easter Day, which in 1815 fell on 26 March. A. Wall (rev. ed. H. Gunning), The Ceremonies Observed in the Senate-House of the University of Cambridge ... (Cambridge, 1828 ed., cf. 1st ed. 1798), 107.

[125] Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 13.

[126] It seems likely that the 11 April meeting with the medics, to which busy practitioners would have to be invited, was decided upon in an informal consultation at Great St Mary's on Sunday 9 April.

[127] The Cambridge University Calendar for the Year 1818, 3.

[128] Wall (rev. ed., Gunning), The Ceremonies Observed in the Senate-House of the University of Cambridge ... 108-9; EVC, 394-6. By 1860 (when Heads of Houses and Professors had also largely given up attending Great St Mary's), the average undergraduate attendance was reported to be 6. But in 1839, Romilly noted "the young men made a noise running upstairs" in the church, and Whewell's 1849 Day of Thanksgiving sermon, quoted below, was aimed at students. J.P.T. Bury, ed., Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1832-42 (Cambridge, 1994), 169.

[129] Stamford Mercury, 14 April; Norwich Chronicle (which gives "numerous"), 15 April 1815.

[130] Chester Chronicle, 28 April 1815. The Provost's Lodge then stood close to the site of the Gothic screen that forms the backdrop to King's Parade, which was erected in 1828 to replace it.

[131] Norfolk Journal, 13 April 1815.

[132] That is how the decree was quoted by Whewell, in Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 18 (14 April 1815). See also Norfolk Journal, 13 April, Stamford Mercury, 21 April 1815.

[133] From The Mikado: L. Ayre, The Gilbert and Sullivan Companion (London, 1974 ed, cf. 1st ed. 1972), 242.

[134] Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 17-18 (14, 27 April 1815).

[135] Wright's Solutions of the Cambridge Problems from 1800 to 1820 was published in 1825 when he was "on the wing for a distant province of the empire, on business deeply affecting the interests of science" (preface, vol. i). A revised edition was issued the following year. His Commentary on Newton, also in two volumes, appeared in 1833.

[136] [Wright], Alma Mater, or, Seven years at the University of Cambridge, ii, 58-98. After one examination, Wright removed his script and burned it.

[137] [Wright], Alma Mater, or, Seven years at the University of Cambridge, i, 188-93.

[138] Trinity had so many Fellows that an inner group, the Seniority, was chosen to handle day-to-day business. The quarterly criminal courts doubled as a county council.

[139] Norfolk Chronicle, 15 April 1815; Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 18 (14 April 1815). ["There is every appearance that the disorder has now subsided, we have had no new cases for some time, and those few that remain are recovering," Haviland informed the Royal College of Physicians on 1 May, two days before Dusautoy's death. Haviland, 399.]

[140] Clark and Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, i, 136; Ipswich Journal, 6 May 1815, and see also Norfolk Chronicle, same date. Dusautoy (the name was also spelt Dusatoy) was a sizar (poor student) from Devon. His father seems to have been an Army officer. Venn states that he was buried in the Emmanuel College cloisters.

[141] Wall (rev. ed., Gunning), The Ceremonies Observed in the Senate-House of the University of Cambridge, 108, 411. A syndicate is a Cambridge word for a committee. Some colleges, e.g. Caius, Emmanuel, St Catharine's and Trinity, conducted internal examinations around the division of the Easter Term, but examinations implied that candidates were being tested on something they had studied. The Cambridge University Calendar for the Year 1818, 189, 209, 241, 255.

[142] Undergraduates could be admitted to the University Library, on the recommendation of a senior member. Given that the curriculum was rigid and based on set texts, it is unlikely that many sought the privilege. A Guide through the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1814), 25.

[143] C.A. Bristed, Five Years in an English University (3rd ed., New York, 1873, cf. 1st ed., 1852), 87; The Student's Guide to the University of Cambridge (3rd ed., Cambridge, 1874), 5 (essay by R.B. Somerset). An academically successful student, Richard Jebb of Trinity, conveyed the flavor of the Easter Term of 1861. "The days here drag their slow length through cricket matches, novels, and whist, as if they were trying how much ennui they carry." The description was written on 29 April. C. Jebb, The Life and Letters of Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (Cambridge, 1907), 44.

[144] Douglas, The Life and Selections from the Correspondence of William Whewell, 18 (14 April 1815).

[145] The English translation of the Grace is given in Cooper, Annals, iv, 509. Sedgwick's biographers thought the "exact words" in Latin were "worth quotation": Clark and Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick,  i, 135n. Undergraduates were "Juvenes Academici".

[146] Clark and Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, i, 136 (22 May 1815).

[147] Northampton Mercury, 6 May; Stamford Mercury, 12 May; Chester Chronicle, 19 May 1815.

[148] In July 1837, Ingle formed part of the University delegation that congratulated Queen Victoria on her accession. He persuaded himself that the young Queen would take the opportunity to confer a knighthood upon him. She omitted to do so, leaving Ingle "most disgusted at coming away without the right to be called Sir Thomas".  Bury, ed., Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1832-42, 124-5 (14 July 1837).

[149] Cooper, Annals, iv, 510, and see Norfolk Chronicle, 3 June; Stamford Mercury, 9 June 1815.

[150] Bath Chronicle, Chester Chronicle, 26 May 1815; Clark and Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, i, 135.

[151] Two of the prestigious awards went to Trinity undergraduates, although they probably did not need to be in residence to compete: J.H. Fisher, a Wrangler in 1818, won Sir William Browne's medal for the best Greek Ode, George Stainforth was awarded the comparable medal for Latin. Stainforth won a string of University prizes, and was President of the Union in 1816, the year he graduated. He died in 1820. The Chancellor's Medal for an English Poem (the subject for 1815 was "[William] Wallace") was the subject of a major foul-up. The examiners gave first place to a remarkable young man, 16-year-old Horace Waddington, whose elder brother had won the Medal two years earlier. It was then discovered that Waddington had not in fact matriculated (he did so in the Michaelmas Term of 1815), and so was not yet a member of the University. The Medal was then awarded to the runner-up, Edward Smirke of St John's, and arrangements were made to print Waddington's offering as a consolation. The imbroglio suggests a. that young Horace might have come to Cambridge (although this alone would not have made him "resident") and b. that he was disadvantaged by the lack of a matriculation ceremony in the Easter Term. He won the Chancellor's Medal in 1820.

[152] Stamford Mercury, 18 August 1815.

[153] E.W. Marrs, ed., The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, iii: 1809–1817 (Ithaca NY, 1978), 185 [?21 August 1815]. Lamb's links to Cambridge were celebrated in G. Wherry, ed., Cambridge and Charles Lamb (Cambridge, 1925).

[154] Bury and Norwich Post, 23 August 1815.

[155] Tanner, ed., The Historical Register of the University of Cambridge ... to the Year 1910, 990 for matriculations, 476-9 for Tripos results. Numbers classed in Mathematics were: (January) 1814, 50; 1815, 54; 1816, 48; 1817, 48; 1818, 69. Since the Tripos was taken after 10 terms of residence, the reduction in 6 classed candidates between 1815 and 186 may reflect a drop of 23 in matriculations between 1811 and 1812. However, a rise of 11 in matriculations between 1812 and 1813 was not reflected in an increase in Tripos candidates classed in 1817. The jump in numbers (21) in 1818 may suggest that some candidates from earlier years deferred their final examinations, although matriculations had risen by 44 between 1813 and 1814.

[156] EVC, 385-6; A. Gray, Jesus College (London, 1902), 209. Corpus Christi, St John's and Trinity each built (and named) a New Court in the 1820s; Peterhouse also added new buildings.

[157] Okes, 6, 12.

[158]  Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, i (1822), 287-90; Rook, et al., History of Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, 86; Bury and Norwich Post, 29 December 1819.

[159] R. Yeo, "Whewell, William (1794–1866)...", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[160] H.W. Becher, "William Whewell's Odyssey: From Mathematics to Moral Philosophy" in M. Fisch and S. Schaffer, eds., William Whewell: a Composite Portrait (Oxford, 1991), 1-29, esp. 17. Paley's Evidence of Christianity (1794) became a set text for the Previous Examination ('Little-Go') introduced in 1822. Perhaps Paley's best-known argument was that of the watchmaker: anyone discovering a watch could deduce the existence of a watchmaker even without understanding its function. This example was developed in Paley's 1802 Natural Philosophy or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.

[161] Quoted, M. Ruse, "William Whewell: Omniscientist", in Fisch and Schaffer, eds., William Whewell: a Composite Portrait, 86-116, esp. 91.

[162] J.H. Brooke, "Indications of a Creator: Whewell as Apologist and Priest", in Fisch and Schaffer, eds., William Whewell: a Composite Portrait, 150-73, esp. 162.

[163] W. Whewell, A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on the Day of the General Thanksgiving, November I5, 1849 (Cambridge, 1849), 10-14. Whewell preached on Psalm civ. 29: Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Other clergy in 1849 attributed cholera to the growth of Popery and to voters electing Nonconformist candidates over Anglicans. One asserted that its function was "to deter people from marrying the sisters of their deceased wives." However, Whewell may have been out on a limb. R.J. Morris pointed out that C.J. Blomfield, the Bishop of London, had moved away from his 1832 view that cholera was a punishment to argue in 1849 for the need "to increase the comforts and improve the moral character of the masses." In his 1849 Thanksgiving sermon, in St Paul's, he did indeed describe cholera as "the surest antidote to the poison of infidelity, disloyalty and anarchy", but he emphasized the need for sanitary reform as well: "Want of decent cleanly habitations is one of the chief evils that affect the poor." Smith, The People's Health 1830-1910, 230; R.J. Morris, Cholera in 1832: the Social Response to an Epidemic (London, 1976), 148, 203-4.

[164]  M.E. Bury and J.D. Pickles, eds, Romilly's Cambridge Diary, 1848-1864 (Cambridge, 2000), 50 (2 December 1849).

[165] Brooke, "Indications of a Creator: Whewell as Apologist and Priest".

[166] Smith, The People's Health 1830-1910, 229-38, esp. 234. For a discussion of the intellectual and practical obstacles to research, Morris, Cholera in 1832: the Social Response to an Epidemic, 184-92. Interestingly, Morris mentioned shortcomings in statistics as one of the handicaps to understanding. Here, perhaps, Cambridge mathematics might have made a positive contribution.

[167]  Whewell, A Sermon Preached before the University of Cambridge, on the Day of the General Thanksgiving, November I5, 1849, 17.

[168] C. Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain (2 vols, Cambridge, 1891-4), ii, 823, 846. In 1832, cholera cases across Britain peaked between July and September, Long Vacation months for the University. Morris, Cholera in 1832: the Social Response to an Epidemic, 75.

Cholera was referred to as cholera morbus or Asiatic cholera. Confusingly, miscellaneous attacks of vomiting and diarrhoea were called "English cholera". The condition was widespread in Cambridge during the summer of 1846, causing "several deaths", including that of a waiter at the Red Lion: "He died in a few hours". E. Porter, Victorian Cambridge: Joseph Chater's Diaries, 1844-1884 (London, 1975), 40. As a second-year undergraduate in 1857, Henry Sidgwick "suffered from an acute and prolonged attack of dyspepsia." Clues suggest that he had a stomach ulcer, likely enough in so serious a personality: the imprecise terminology hardly helped treatment. A. Sidgwick and E.M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: a Memoir (London, 1906), 18.

[169] Cooper, Annals, iv, 572.

[170] P.K. Gilbert, "On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England", Ely had to wait until 1850 for a local Board of Health, established under the leadership of the Dean of the cathedral, George Peacock, previously quoted as a Cambridge University reformer.  Although located inland, Wisbech was also a North Sea port. It suffered a minor cholera outbreak in 1832, but major epidemics in 1849 and 1854. The town was slow to take action, and remedial work was imposed by the central government department, also called the Board of Health. Victoria County History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, iv (2002), 261. An active local Board of Health had successfully defended King's Lynn against cholera. Bury and Norwich Post, 30 November 1831; 29 February 1832.

[171] P.W. Latham, a physician at Addenbrooke's from 1863 and Downing Professor of Medicine from 1874, published a number of research papers on typhoid. Unfortunately, Latham also revived the tradition of bitter quarrelling within the University medical community. C.N. L. Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge: iv, 1870-1990 (Cambridge, 1993), 167-8.

[172] Morning Post, n.d, quoted Edinburgh Evening News and Manchester Guardian 4 December 1873. According to Sheldon Rothblatt, "in the mid-Victorian period Trinity Hall had a reputation for accepting students in delicate health." The college's proximity to the polluted Cam must have made this a risky policy. S. Rothblatt, The Revolution of the Dons: Cambridge and Society in Victorian England (London, 1968), 235.

[173] British Medical Journal, n.d. quoted The Times, 5 December 1873. Dr George Buchanan, whose report is discussed below, dismissed the case at Queens' as "rumoured".

[174] Cambridge Independent Press, 6 December 1873.  Warning of likely future typhoid outbreaks in Cambridge in 1887, Alfred Carpenter criticised the use of "so-called disinfectants, which only lead to a waste of public money and cause people to rest in a fool's paradise." The Times, 11 October 1887.                                                              

[175] The Times, 17 December; Manchester Guardian, 10 December 1873. In 1910, Winslow explained his change of college: "a number of my medical friends were migrating from Caius to Downing.... We had more freedom there; the College was nearer the Medical Schools." L.F. Winslow, Recollections of Forty Years... (London, 1910), 9.

[176] The findings were summarised in a letter to The Times on 29 January 1874.

[177] George Paget was the brother of the distinguished London surgeon James Paget, praised by W.S. Gilbert in Patience ("coolness of Paget about to trepan").

[178] A. Hardy, "Buchanan, Sir George (1831–1895)...", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Buchanan's report was published in British Parliamentary Papers, 1874, xxxi, C1066, 63-78. There is a useful extended quotation in 

W.H. Corfield, Typhoid Fever and its Prevention (London, 1902), 81-2.

[179] C.H. Cooper (ed.  J.W. Cooper), Annals of Cambridge, v (Cambridge, 1908), 133.

[180] The college's brilliant mathematician, Norman Ferrers (who became Master in 1880) energetically employed statistical theory to test the probability of various hypotheses. Buchanan gravely thanked him.

[181] The figures, from Tanner Historical Register, 900 are 1873:654; 1874: 663; 1875:672; 1876: 699.  

[182] British Medical Journal, 10 January 1874, 51-2.

[183] British Medical Journal, 20 February 1875, 250-1.  The potential for bad publicity was illustrated by the extensive quotation of this report in a letter to the Melbourne Argus, 8 May 1875. A 21-year-old undergraduate at Brasenose College Oxford died of typhoid in December 1874, after symptoms had been "unfortunately neglected". The Times, 8 December 1874.

[184] The Times, 11 October; Cambridge Independent Press, 15 October 1887; Carpenter's obituary in British Medical Journal, 6 February 1892, 312.

[185] The Times, 17 December 1908.


[187] J.W. Morris and Lord Robert Cecil, quoted by Geoffrey Shakespeare in P. Cradock, ed., Recollections of the Cambridge Union, 1815-1939 (Cambridge, 1953), 106-8; T. Howarth, Cambridge between Two Wars (London, 1978), 25.  There is no mention of the Spanish 'Flu in Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge: iv, 1870-1990. A keyword search of death notices in The Times for 1919 has traced no references to fatal cases.

[188] Manchester Guardian, 18 February; The Times, 1, 4 March; Observer, 6 March 1927; Manchester Guardian, 24 February 1932; The Times, 4, 15 November 1957; Manchester Guardian, 14 February 1959. Australian regional newspapers may be consulted through the National Library's Trove website.

[189]  Cambridge University Reporter, 9 April 2020.

[190] (undated).

[191] [28 May 2020].

[192]  The Student's Guide to the University of Cambridge (3rd ed.), 92 (Henry Latham).

[193] Until recent times, colleges also employed male servants, known as gyps: Downing in the early 20th century had a gyp called Jeeves.

[194]  Varsity, 28 April 2020 (

[195]  Cambridge University Reporter, 17 June 2020.

[196]  A useful and comprehensive overview, by G.B. Skelsky of the University's central administration, forms an appendix to Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge, 234-8.

[197] F.W. Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (London, 1906), 76.

[198] Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge, 234, quoting G.B. Skelsky.

[199] The Senate also elects the High Steward, of whose existence most members of the University are probably unaware.

[200] Cambridge University Reporter, 9 April 2020.

[201] Cambridge University Reporter, 17 June 2020.

[202] As seen in Whewell's matter-of-fact 22 March 1815 report, quoted above, that "the whole number of those who have died in the University since Christmas is not more than six or seven, and of those I believe two or three have been carried off by other disorders." Of the 13 Union orators during its first term debates in Lent 1815, 2 were dead by 1820.

[203] Clark and Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, i, 135.

[204] J.W. Clark, Old Friends at Cambridge and Elsewhere (London, 1900), 15 (quoting an essay of 1882).

[205] Clark, Old Friends at Cambridge and Elsewhere, 16, quoting Sedgwick's defence of Cambridge in the Leeds Mercury, 1836.

[206] "A Long Time in History", Ged Martin, Past Futures: the Impossible Necessity of History (Toronto, 2004), 151-86.

[207]  Morris, Cholera in 1832: the Social Response to an Epidemic, 12-14, compares the 10 percent death rate in the cholera hotspot of Newburn, County Durham in 1832 with the 60 percent wiped out by plague at Eyam in Derbyshire in 1665-6.

[208] See, generally, L.K. Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: the Pandemic of 541-750 (Cambridge, 2007).  The second outbreak caused an intellectual problem for the historian Bede. Priests conventionally blamed disasters upon human folly and wickedness, the line that Whewell, in pulpit mode, took in relation to cholera in 1849. But bubonic plague broke out in 664 a few months after the Synod of Whitby, which had agreed that the English Church should adopt Roman practices, a cause strongly supported by Bede. Therefore he could hardly argue that the pestilence was a sign of God's anger, and he prudently steered away from any speculation about cause. J. Maddicott, "Plague in Seventh-Century England", in Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: the Pandemic of 541-750, 171-214, esp. 181-2.

[209] Hughes Hall University of Cambridge Summer E-News [1 July 2020].

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