London’s Broad Street epidemic of cholera in September of 1854 was one of the worst in history of that city. But a doctor named John Snow, whose biography is fascinating, turned it around with his investigations and treatments and Johnson’s fascinating book is the story of that scientific breakthrough.
I’m not usually big on life science books (biology and medicine) although I enjoy a good read in other fields of science so I would never have picked this up had it not been the selection of one of my (too) many reading groups. I almot didn’t get it even then! But that would have been my loss because this is a fascinating book, well written in a style which flows nicely while providing a wealth of information. . Johnson managed to grab and keep my attention even while describing things I normally consider yukkie.
Eventually becoming a specialist in anesthesia, Snow went from very humble beginnings to the top of London medical circles in very short time. He was called on to deliver Queen Victoria’s 8th child using ether. But his breakthrough in the prevention and treatment of cholera was due to his “consilient” thinking. (Snow used medicine, sociology and statistics.) His thought process took inductive conclusions from one field and tested them in another. Very helpful in a mystery such as this, as with many scientific endeavors,
So, “what done it?” Snow didn’t agree with the contemporary theory of miasma, or contaminated air, which for a number of reasons prevailed at the time. So because the local powers thought the air was the problem, they worked on a way to move the fecal material to the Thames – a city-wide sewage system.
Fortunately, death statistics were being kept so Snow could map out the occurrences of cholera deaths and by interviewing survivors find out where they got their drinking water. He suspected the Broad Street pump very early on.
Meanwhile, the young Reverend Henry Whitehead, whom we meet in Chapter 2, was tending diligently to the afflicted in the Broad Street area and coming up with his own ideas. Whitehead was not at all a fan of Snow’s waterborne theory, but wasn’t sure what it was contaminating his parish with cholera, there were several theories including miasma, morals, physical constitution, divine retribution, who knew?
But as the two worked on yet another study Whitehead slowly became convinced of the logic of Snow’s argument. But then, if they’ve got the “what done it” and the “why,” how about the “who”? But we know that from the end of chapter 1.
The book doesn’t stop there. The map which was so important, I mean what’s the title here?