Note: this is not a question about history, but about human digestive system over time :)

I know a lot of colleagues who traveled for business trips to India. All of them caught terrible diarrhea there, in spite of keeping all the rules related to use of reboiled or canned water only, eating only peeled fruits, not eating the street food etc.

My question is: how did the millions (or hundred thousands, I am not sure with the amount) of Britons survived in India during the time of the British Raj 1858-1947?

Did they have to keep the same safety dietary rules as the contemporary Westerners all the time? (I cannot see this as technically possible...)

Were our intestinal flora and fauna different one hundred years ago?

Was the hygiene level and quality of water much lower in Europe then so coming to India was not such a biological shock? (Well, I would believe this in the 1800s but not in the 1900s...)

Or did just some of them die and the rest got accustomed?


I am aware that there is an initial shock for your body when travelling to a very different area generally. However, the Indians (and other Asians) can easily drink the tap water in most of the EU countries and eat the street food, which is not valid vice-versa. So there must be some difference.

  • $\begingroup$ Its true for any place in the world.. When you shift initially, in most cases, your body would need time to get adjusted to the food there. Not only the food but the weather is also a cause for diarrhea in many places. When I was visiting Britain, the initial few days played havoc with my bodily functions too which I attributed to a couple of pork sausages.. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 9:17

1 Answer 1


Who said they did not have the same problems? I'm sure they did and I'm sure most of them had horrible diarrhea.

A quick google search brought up Man and Microbes: Disease and Plagues in History and Modern Times, by Arno Karlen which states that

In 1817, when the first cholera pandemic began [...]. In Calcutta and Jessore, cholera killed 5,000 British soldiers within weeks

However, those who survived would get used to it eventually. Cholera is much more serious than simple dysentery of course but its main symptom is also diarrhea.

The locals of wherever you happen to be are used to the pathogens that are common in the drinking water. If I am not from a place and drink water with new pathogens, I will be sick. I will also, however, eventually get over it and my body will be used to them. Depending on the details, either because I have developed an immunity or because I have developed the necessary intestinal fauna to deal with it.

So while the intestinal fauna may indeed have changed over time, this has absolutely nothing to do with what you're asking. First because your assumption is wrong (the British were subjected to the same health issues as modern Europeans visiting Asia) and second because people adapt.

  • $\begingroup$ terdon, do you have any reference proving your statement "the British were subjected to the same health issues as modern Europeans visiting Asia"? And also - we have had many Indians visiting the company I work for, they have drunk tap water and have eaten everything and they have not caught diarrhea! $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 6:59

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