During the nineteenth century Finland was hit several times by Asiatic cholera epidemics, each one originating in Russia. The first of these swept Helsinki in August of 1831. Emperor Nicholas I ordered the deputy chairman of the Senate’s economic department, A. H. Falck, to lead the efforts to ward off cholera. The city administrative court took care of practical arrangements. Quarantine stations were set up on the islands around Helsinki, with cholera hospitals in Hietalahti and Kruununhaka.
Doctors from other parts of the country came to Finland, among them Elias Lönnrot, who would later become a celebrated philologist and folklorist. Lönnrot was stationed as an assistant doctor in Hietalahti hospital. The parson and the chaplain were helped out by two extra priests. Information and advice was given to the city’s residents in conjunction with the religious services. The parsonage had a general medical store.
In all 197 people died of cholera in Helsinki, with 96 civilian deaths in Sveaborg. There were many deaths in the garrisons and marine fortifications also, but their numbers were not made public. The first 70 bodies were buried on the west side of Lapinniemi Orthodox graveyard. From the beginning of September the dead were buried in a separate graveyard for cholera victims, located in what is now the part of Hietaniemi cemetery that contains the graves of war heroes. The cholera dead were also interred at the bottom of Töölö Bay, to where the bodies were transported by boat from Kruununhaka hospital.
Subsequent cholera outbreaks occurred in Helsinki in 1848, 1849, and 1850, the disease having being brought in by soldiers via the Sveaborg fortification. 438 people were afflicted on those occasions, of which 188 died of the disease. The largest epidemic was to occur in 1853–1854, however, when the whole of the Grand Duchy was affected by cholera. One-tenth of the cases occurred in Helsinki, and almost half of all those who contracted cholera died of it. Around 600 Helsinki residents dies, along with a large number of soldiers. The city doctor C. Qvist did his doctoral thesis in 1871 on cholera, which at the time afflicted 605 Helsinki residents. 305 of these died of the disease.
Cholera was eventually beaten by science, with a vaccine having been successfully prepared by 1893. The defeat of cholera was also a matter of social organisation, since the bacteria spread quickly in polluted water. An adequate sewage system needed to built, and the safety of water supplies needed to be secured. Indeed, in 1872 the Helsinki authorities entered into a contract with the engineer Robert Huber of the Berlin-based Neptun company for the construction of a public water pipeline. Indeed for a generation of Helsinki residents around that time, “huuberi” became a slang term for clean water.
The Cholera basin in the southern harbour got its name through an isolated fatal incident of cholera that occurred in 1893, when a trawler captain died during the autumn Helsinki fish market. His boat was quarantined in the westernmost harbour basin, which subsequently became known as “the cholera basin”.