In 1826, a disease also shut the uni down
This isn’t the first time the UG has been on lockdown
In 1826, more than 10 percent of the people in Groningen died of a mysterious illness that would become known as the ‘Groningen epidemic’. ‘It was impossible to teach classes’, says Klaas van Berkel. ‘Students and lecturer were home, sick.’
Others were working on combating the disease, which was also known as ‘intermittent fevers’. People were laid up in bed and there weren’t nearly enough doctors to help them.
Astronomy professor Seerp Brouwer, who originally graduated from medical school, went back to work as a physician. Medical students helped out where they could. Professor Thomas á Thuessink and Bakker led an emergency hospital set up in the arsenal at the Turfsingel, where the Praedinius high school currently stands.
‘The city was panicking’, says Van Berkel. ‘No one knew what was going on. People isolated themselves out of fear back then as well.’
For a long time, malaria was thought to be the cause of the Groningen epidemic. But according to recent research by Ulco Kooystra with the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties, this is not correct. Kooystra is working on a book about Sibrandus Stratingh, who made the first electric driving ‘car’ in 1835. Stratingh was laid up with the disease for two months.
‘I always felt malaria was an unusual explanation’, says Kooystra. ‘Sure, the disease was endemic at the time, but it was fairly mild in the Netherlands. It only killed the elderly and the weak. Not unlike corona, really. So why would it be killing all kinds of people now?’
His explanations is much more prosaic. ‘I think it was a combination of typhus and other bowel diseases, caused by contaminated surface water.’
Shortly before the disease struck, Groningen had switched to the barrel system to ‘collect poop and other faecal matter’ at people’s homes. These enormous amounts of faeces were left to drip dry on the ‘muck steps’. Once everything had dried out, it was transported to the Groningen bogs to be used as fertiliser.
The muck steps were located at the start of the Winschoterdiep in the south east of the city, where the river the Drentse Aa entered the city. ‘But it was in an open container, and it would overflow when it was raining. The seepage would contaminate the clean water flowing into the canals.
People drank the water from the canals and then pooped it out again, bacteria and all. ‘That’s how that worked.’ No wonder, then, that the disease especially affected the poorer neighbourhoods, as the people there couldn’t afford to drink beer or wine.
The disease was finally under control when the then still very modern solution of chlorine was used, recommended by, among others, Stratingh. ‘Chlorine and chlorine compounds had only just been discovered. People didn’t know anything about bacteria back then, so they thought it was the strong smell that killed the pathogenic miasmas in the air’, says Kooystra.
Groningen was the first city that used chlorine to combat an epidemic. ‘It’s also possible people were less susceptible to it’, says Kooystra.
In the end, the university didn’t start classes again until December, just before the Christmas holidays. But don’t think the UG took things easy.
‘They made up for lost time by cancelling all vacations the next year’, says Van Berkel. ‘They did the same thing after the war. Education had come to a virtual standstill during the last year of the war, even though the university was officially still open. After the liberation, they taught two years’ worth of classes in a single year.’