Photo of researchers at launch of Graphic Novel on Typhoidland

Spotlight on Research: Typhoid, Cockles, and Terrorism: How a Disease Shaped Modern Dublin

Posted: 17 June, 2024

Since 2021, our international team has used historical and digital humanities methods to interweave personal stories of living and dying with typhoid in Edwardian Dublin with the troubled evolution of the city’s sanitary infrastructure and plans to weaponise microbes during the War of Independence. Our research forms a part of a multi-award-winning international engagement project, called Typhoidland, which seeks to challenge the myth of typhoid as a disease of the past, engage global audiences about the importance of typhoid control, and use critical historical research on past public health interventions to inform ongoing control campaigns.


We were inspired to focus on Dublin as a historical case-study highlighting the dangers of one-size fits all thinking in public health. Constructed between the 1870s and 1906, Dublin’s sewerage system was based on a London-inspired imperial template that was designed to quickly flush human waste out of cities. Unfortunately, planners did not adapt this template to Dublin’s local environment. The Liffey’s low flow rate and tidal patterns meant that sewage discharged at the city’s new Ringsend Treatment Plant did not get swept out to sea but ended up polluting local foreshores and shellfish beds. The result was a surge of typhoid and other gastrointestinal outbreaks, which tarnished Dublin’s reputation, and an infrastructural lock-in that continues to cause ecological and health problems.


Image of how typhoid travels through the human body in a graphic novel form. Artwork by Elisa Wolfson

Research on Dublin’s public health records also enabled us to reconstruct the many everyday tragedies connected with the spread of a disease that infected people from all walks of life – ranging from British troopers and Royalty to leading Irish Nationalists and James Joyce’s siblings. Tracing these histories allowed us to bring to life a not so distant past when fever hospitals, “Lady Sanitary Inspectors”, and cutting-edge bacteriology were all deployed to curb typhoid – and Dublin’s ‘Sweet Molly Malone’ “died of a fever”. Our research also illuminated dark sides of Dublin’s history such as the deep inequalities and overcrowding that allowed the notorious ‘filth disease’ to thrive, the testing of typhoid vaccines on inmates of the local Richmond District Lunatic Asylum in 1900, and Irish Republican Army deliberations on the use of bioagents such as typhoid or glanders (an infection of horses) to target British troops during the Irish War of Independence.

Funding by the Irish Research Council (IRC) and UK Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC) Digital Humanities scheme has allowed us to publish our research for scientific audiences, present insights to public health decision-makers, and design three exciting exhibitions on typhoid research with the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI), public health and sanitation in Dublin with Dublin City Library & Archive, and the evolution of biowarfare with University College Dublin (UCD) Archives. All exhibitions launch on 16.06.2024 – and are freely accessible at:  Our rich public engagement portfolio also includes the graphic novel Fear & Fever: 14 Days of Typhoid in Edwardian Dublin (2024), available for free in Dublin libraries and online, engaging animations, new art commissions, and ‘Typhoid Now’, a short film featuring three of Ireland’s leading public health experts.



The Typhoid, Cockles, and Terrorism project is jointly based at UCD (PI, Dr Claas Kirchhelle) and the University of Oxford (PI, Dr Samantha Vanderslott). Postdocs on the project were Dr Emily Webster (now: Durham University) and Dr Carly Collier (UCD). You can follow Typhoidland on X: @typhoidland.

Data Protection Notice

Please read our updated Data Protection Notice.

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We'd also like to set optional analytics cookies to help us improve it. We won't set these optional cookies unless you enable them. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Privacy Policy page

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Analytics cookies

We'd like to set Google Analytics cookies to help us to improve our website by collecting and reporting information on how you use it. The cookies collect information in a way that does not directly identify anyone.