This week’s book is another palate cleanser. I read it on a plane to Budapest, where it did the admirable job of distracting me from the events happening in the seat next to me. You see, there were three (3) stag dos on this plane, and only one hen do. This meant that the ratio of ‘drunk women’ vs ‘drunk men’ was highly unfavorable to the men, which of course meant that they all started a competition on who could impress the girls the most.
It wasn’t pretty for anyone sober on this plane, and I had the distinct disadvantage of sitting right next to the chef hen. I was in the blast zone, so to say. So I was glad that I had a book to shield me from the charm blast, or so I thought, until one drunk guy mistook me for a hen (which tells you everything you need to know about his alcohol level) and, in a mistook quest to charm me, asked me what my book was about.
“The 1854 Cholera Epidemic in London,” I said without looking up from my book. That was the last thing I heard from him.
But don’t be misled – this book was really entertaining and kept the disgust to a minimum. If you’re interested in the importance of reliable maps, or in the origins of data analysis, this is an excellent read!
So let’s rewind. In the mid-19th century, London was one of the biggest cities on the planet. The problem was, as the author puts it succinctly, it was a Victorian city with Elizabethan infrastructure.
There were close to a million people living in London, and they all treated their waste the same way they always had: by putting it in open sewers or right in the Thames.
I don’t want to imagine what the city must have smelled like, but it was so bad that there was a word for it: miasma. People knew that breathing this air in can’t be good for you, and in fact, the bad air was mistaken for the main cause for the cholera epidemic.
They were dead wrong, however – you get Cholera by swallowing it, not by breathing it in. I’m not saying that the air was good for you, quite the opposite, but at least it didn’t give you Cholera.
Cholera happens if people drink water from an infected quell. And that was the case in 1854 in Broad Street.
If you’ve ever been to London, you probably passed close to this part of the city – it’s just off Regent Street (the one with the gigantic Hemley’s Toy Store). In fact, Regent Street marked the border between Soho (which was back then a poor, crowded part of town) and Mayfair (which has always been rich and wonderful.)
(There’s nothing better than an early morning stroll in Mayfair.)
And this was no accident – Regent Street was explicitly built to contain the poor masses of Soho and keep them out of the eye of the rich people living just a few hundred meters away. This goes to show that segregation hasn’t been a new invention of city planners – it existed all along!
So yeah. If you had to find an ideal breeding ground for Cholera (or any other nasty epidemic bacterium), Broad Street in 1854 would have been it: lots of people living in crowded spaces, no access to clean water, open sewage systems.
I’ll spare you the details of how exactly the epidemic broke out, but suffice to say that a toddler’s diaper was washed in a swell that was also used for drinking water. Yummy.
But what made this epidemic so interesting was the fact that pretty much everyone who got infected died (bad!) but not everyone got infected (good!)
So enter the hero of our story – John Snow. (I did some googling, but I couldn’t find out whether George R R Martin had this John Snow in mind when he wrote Game of Thrones.)
John Snow was an esteemed physician – he was the one who administrated anesthesia to Queen Victoria when she gave birth to her eighth child. So suffice to say he had it made. But instead of resting on his laurels and enjoying the sweet life of the upper Victorian class, John was interested in the recent epidemic that ravaged Soho.
At this point, it wasn’t quite clear what caused the illness – as mentioned before, the bad air was one major suspect, as was the ‘feeble condition of the lower classes’, which should tell you everything about the state of medicine back in those days.
Anyway. John Snow set off, armed not necessarily with medicine (because there was no known cause, people didn’t know how to cure Cholera!), but with a map. He knocked at every door in the affected area, marking who was infected, and when, and whether they died.
He soon discovered something remarking – that some people shouldn’t have been infected, but were – and that some who by all means should have been infected, were spared.
So he investigated the second – the most interesting case was a brewery that was right in the middle of the infected area, but had suffered no losses. Snow soon found out that the brewery had it’s own water source (yay) and gave its workers free beer (even more yay – in all fairness, alcoholic beverages were, on the whole, safer to consume than water back in those days.)
So after a bit of fiddling the numbers, Snow realized that all the infected people had consumed water from a pump in Broad Street. He managed to convince the City Council to close the pump down, and viola, the outbreak was over.
(Of course, I’m leaving a bit of the story out here – there was a political aspect to it, people didn’t want the pump closed, because ironically, the water there tasted BETTER and FRESHER than from other pumps, even though it was infected with Cholera. Yikes.)
So what did we learn from this book?
First, access to safe water is so important. Especially in today’s world, with a growing urban population, we cannot overemphasize how crucial a good sewage system and secure water sources are!
Secondly, if you are wondering – Cholera can be easily treated, given that you have safe water and you manage to give the patient enough of it. In an oversimplified manner, Cholera causes the victim to expel copious amounts of fluids – both ways, if you do get my drift. If you manage to give the patient enough water, they’ll usually recover! No antibiotics needed!
(Please note that i am NOT a doctor, so don’t count on this and don’t sue me if that’s not true.)
And finally – John Snow was given the highest honor that the British citizens can bestow upon one of theirs. A pub was named after him, right in the heart of Soho.