Thursday 15 January 2009
Cholera, John Snow and the Broad Street Pump!
There is no mistaking the fact that London was a very dirty place in the 19th century-filth and rubbish was everywhere! The above cartoon, aptly called 'A Court for King Cholera', published in Punch magazine in 1852 outlines just some of the horrid conditions experienced by people in the 1800s.
Conditions were so bad at this point due to rapid population growth as a result of industrialisation. Growth was so quick that towns could not cope with the need to house people and provide them with water and facilities to remove their sewage. In these conditions, nasty and devastating diseases spread very quickly.
The first case of widespread cholera hit Britain in 1831-it was a 'shock disease' that killed quickly. Sufferers would have to endure sudden and prolonged bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting-death as a result of cholera was swift, painful and unpleasant. It was because of these dreadful symptoms that cholera was the most feared disease during this time.
Of course at this time people did not understand that germs caused cholera, as Pasteur's Germ Theory was not published until 1861. People had all sorts of explanations for disease-punishment from God, Miasma or 'bad air', and the movement of the planets.
In 1832 many people studied the cholera epidemic of that year and, after careful observation of the disease, they deduced that there was a link between cholera and water supply. Obviously, this could not be explained because Pasteur had not discovered germs yet!
In 1854 Dr. John Snow made a breakthrough in proving that there was a link between cholera and water supply. Snow used meticulous research, observation, and house-to-house interviews to build up a detailed picture of a limited cholera epidemic which hit one particular area of London.
Within 10 days of the cholera outbreak around Broad Street in London, 500 people had died of the disease. Snow's research led him to discover that all of these deaths occurred within 250 yards of the water pump on Broad Street. Snow started to investigate the surrounding area of the pump and what he found led him to request that the council disable the Broad Street pump-once this was done no more deaths occurred in that same area.
Snow had found a link between the people who were getting their drinking water from the Broad Street pump and the people dying from cholera-it was mostly people using this pump that were falling victim to the terrible disease.
Cholera is spread by infected water and it was later discovered that a cesspool, one metre away from the pump, had a cracked lining allowing the contents to seep into the drinking water.
Unfortunately, John Snow, who was one of the more forward thinking surgeons of his time being one of the first to champion the use of chloroform, didn't live to see why his theory about cholera being linked to water was correct. Snow died in 1858 as the result of a stroke, three years before germs were discovered.