Cholera and the City

By Sarver, Aaron | In These Times, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Cholera and the City


Sarver, Aaron, In These Times


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Cholera and the City

AT THE MIDPOINT of the 19th Century, many believed that London, a city with almost two and a half million people, was unsustainable. For two decades, cholera epidemics had ravaged London and other major cities in Europe, and prevailing wisdom held that by packing an unprecedented number of people into an area the size of Victorian London the spread of disease was inevitable. And they were right, sort of. In The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Terrifying Epidemic-and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson tells the story of London's cholera outbreak of 1854 and how two brilliant men solved the mystery of the deadly disease's spread.

In the mid-19th century, a Londoner's life expectancy was shockingly low: "the average 'gentleman' died at forty-five, while the average tradesman died in his mid-twenties." Even though Victorian London had grown accustomed to death, the 1848-49 cholera outbreak shocked the population when it killed more than 50,000 of the city's inhabitants. City dwellers lived in constant fear that disease could take their lives with little warning.

Like all urban areas at the time, London lacked the infrastructure of modern cities. By 1854 a citywide sewer system had begun to appear, in part, to help stem the cholera outbreaks. This newly established sewer system co-existed with the old system of dealing with human excrement-the "night soil" men, who hauled the waste that literally filled up the basements of house to farms on the edge of the city. "No extended description of London from that period failed to mention the stench of the city," notes Johnson.

The new rudimentary sewer system simply dumped household sewage into the Thames River, thereby contaminating the underground rivers that were one of the city's main water supplies. Ironically, the man in charge of this was London's sanitation commissioner, Edwin Chadwick. An adherent of the Miasma Theory, which held that cholera was transmitted through a foul stench in the air, Chadwick believed that dumping waste into the river, away from residences, would prevent further outbreaks of the disease. Of course, by contaminating London's main water supply, he greatly contributed to the spread of cholera. As Johnson points out, a 21st century biological terrorist couldn't have devised a more ingenious plot to endanger the city's population.

However, it wasn't just Chadwick. By 1854, the medical community had no better idea of how to prevent cholera than when it first struck London in 1832. The theory of cholera as an airborne illness persisted, and served to reinforce the prejudices of London's technocrats. According to the dominant theory, those who lived in filth and around foul odors, as the majority of London's working poor did, were more likely to die of the disease. Few people noticed that the "night soil" men, despite their daily dealings with filth, often lived long and healthy lives.

One of those who did was Dr. John Snow. From a humble upbringing, Snow would rise to the pinnacle of 19th century medicine: Queen Victoria summoned the doctor in 1853 to assist in the administration of chloroform during childbirth, a technique Snow himself had perfected. …

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