Science in the Time of Cholera (Read)

A couple weeks ago, my favorite radio show This American Life had as its theme -- The Wrong Side of History.

And that's where Edwin Chadwick finds himself in Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, a fascinating nonfiction account of London's 1854 cholera outbreak. Chadwick was a miasmist. He believed that cholera and other diseases were transmitted through the air. The public health official saw the cesspools, street refuse and waste in Londoner's basements as a health hazard. So he developed -- and delivered on -- an impressive plan to take all that, quite literally, shit and deposit it in the Thames.

Johnson writes:

"Chadwick was building an elaborate scheme that would deliver the cholera bacteria directly to the mouths of Londoners ... By the end of the outbreak, nearly 15,000 Londoners would be dead. The first defining act of a modern centralized public-health authority was to poison an entire urban population."


Johnson goes on to compare "Chadwick's folly" to the decision during the 1665-66 plague to mass exterminate all the dogs and cats who some felt were spreading the disease. But the real source of the problem was rats. And they "grew exponentially after the sudden, state-sponsored demise of their only predators."

It's those kinds of details that make Johnson's books so enjoyable. He tackles scientific history and presents it as an engaging , original way. He's kind of a combination of Erik Larson (Devil in White City) and Mary Roach (Bonk).

The hero of The Ghost Map is John Snow, known for his groundbreaking work in anesthesia. Like Joseph Priestly, the hero of Johnson's new book The Invention of Air, Snow is an amateur scientist (at least when it comes to diseases like cholera), but through determination and intelligence, he figures out the source of the problem.

You can read more about this book at its Web site. And see my review of The Invention of Air.