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Image for the news item 'The ‘Cambridge fever’ of 1815: an Emmanuel tragedy' on 1 Oct 2020
James Dusautoy’s memorial stone in the chapel cloisters

When the Covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of Cambridge University in March 2020, it was the first time that such a drastic measure had been enacted since the spring of 1815, when an outbreak of a malady known locally as ‘Cambridge fever’ resulted in the suspension of normal academic life for most of the Easter Term. The disease was probably typhoid, resulting from the contamination of Cambridge’s water supply, and it claimed the lives of a number of townspeople as well as at least nine members of the University. Given that most of the student fatalities were Emmanuel men we have more reason than most to remember the events of that year, yet none of the printed annals of the college mentions the episode, and even contemporary references in the college archives are extremely hard to find. There is a solitary entry in the Order Book, for 25th April, deferring the half-yearly audit on account of the ‘malignant fever…prevalent in the University and Town, which has been fatal in some Colleges and particularly in our own’.

The first Emma casualty, a third-year fellow commoner named Francis Millward, died on 18 March, followed the next day by Charles Wade-Gery, a second-year scholar. Charles was buried in the chancel of All Saints church, Little Staughton, Bedfordshire, where his gravestone records that he died ‘in the fever that prevailed in the university’. A fortnight later there was a double calamity, for Edward Burroughes died on 1 April, to be followed two days later by his elder brother James. A memorial plaque in North Burlingham church, Norfolk, describes the brothers as having died of an ‘infectious Fever which they caught whilst pursuing their studies at Cambridge’.

The fifth victim was James Dusautoy, a second year student, who succumbed on 3 May. As it was impracticable to convey his body to his family home in Totnes, Devon, he was interred in the chapel cloister at Emmanuel. Three days after his death, the college paid £2 6s 11d for ‘Brick work to Grave by Chaple’. The epitaph on Dusautoy’s memorial tablet (as translated from the original Latin) relates that he had been attacked by an epidemic disease and died in his nineteenth year, having ‘already won honour as a young man of singular ability and holiness of life’. A sixth Emmanuel casualty may have been Edward Staunton, a first-year fellow commoner, who died in Cambridge of unknown causes before the middle of March. In other colleges, the disease claimed the lives of two undergraduates and a Fellow at Jesus, and one student at Christ’s.

Nearly all Cambridge students and many dons had fled the town by the end of March, and edicts issued by the University in April and May effectively wrote off the remainder of the Easter Term. Life returned to normal after the Long Vac, and memories of the epidemic seem to have soon faded. Even at Emmanuel its effects were fleeting, for although the number of new admissions dipped in 1816, this was only a temporary blip. James Dusautoy’s marble plaque was to be the sole enduring reminder of the tragedy that unfolded here in the spring of 1815.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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