Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cholera from Water? Everybody Knows it's Spread by Miasma!

"Sept. 8, 1854: Pump Shutdown Stops London Cholera Outbreak"
This Day in Tech, Wired (September 8, 2009)

"1854: Physician John Snow convinces a London local council to remove the handle from a pump in Soho. A deadly cholera epidemic in the neighborhood comes to an end immediately, though perhaps serendipitously. Snow maps the outbreak to prove his point … and launches modern epidemiology.

The Soho neighborhood was not then filled with galleries, clubs, restaurants and other fine urban diversions. Some of it was an unsanitary slum where centuries-old cesspits sat chockablock with the wells that provided drinking water to a crowded populace....

"...His hypothesis (and supporting data) held that the scourge was caused by sewage pollution in drinking water and 'always commences with disturbances of the functions of the alimentary canal.'

"This position went largely ignored by the medical establishment and authorities and was opposed by a local water company near one London outbreak. Prevailing views thought that, as with most diseases, 'miasma' or bad air was the culprit...."

The Wired article is a pretty good summary of how Snow tracked down the source of Cholera - and why some people weren't affected.

It's also, I think, another example of how recognized, established, experts in a field may not have the best handle on reality. We don't hear about phlogiston and miasma now - although "miasma" was still used in literature for a while: "Miasmic vapors rose" and all that.

On the other hand, a new idea isn't right because it's new. What Snow had was a mass of facts to back up his conclusion. And, civic authorities who were so desperate that they'd act against the wishes and presumed wisdom on a water country and doctors.

And, as it turned out, Snow was right. Although the dramatic timing may have been more a matter of what Western culture calls "luck," than entirely an effect of the missing handle.

Finally: This is another reason why I'm not all that nostalgic about "the good old days."

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