Bird flu is poised to lay waste the nation, while officials dither. True or false? The recent media frenzy makes a dose of medical history particularly salutary, because whatever mess we've made of the world, it's possible to regard the past as even worse. The life and times of the cholera bacterium makes a fascinating story - with a happy ending, too.
This bacterium mutated into its deadly form in north-eastern India, and in 1817 made its first bid for world domination. It rapidly spread into Asia, killing hundreds of thousands. Death by cholera is agonising and sudden, occuring often a few hours after the outbreak of diarrhoea, vomiting and muscle contractions. No one knew why it appeared or how it travelled. After a few years, the disease mysteriously vanished. Then, in 1826, a second pandemic emerged, and this time Europeans did not escape.
Sandra Hempel recounts the horrific death tolls as cholera swept across the Continent. Ultimately, it landed on Britain's shores, in Sunderland. Attempts to quarantine ships and fumigate cargos all came to naught, not least because the authorities had no idea what caused the disease or how it spread. Isabella Hazard, a 12-year-old whose parents ran a pub popular with shipworkers, was the first to die. …