Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Ghost Map (copy)

Innocence and ignorance opened the door to death. It is almost poetic that the same home, the same household, the same family even, would open and close the door to the worst cholera epidemic ever seen on England’s shores. How could the Lewis family have known?

On a blustery English morning in 1854, an infant girl was born to Thomas and Sarah Lewis. Baby Lewis was rosier, hardier, and—as her parents prayed—more determined to stay within the realm of the living. The previous year the Lewis’s suffered the loss of their infant baby boy. This baby girl showed promise.

In late August, healthy Baby Lewis developed diarrhea. During breaks in her daughter’s illness, Sarah dutifully cleaned her diapers in tepid water, and slung one bucket out the back window and the worst of it she took to the cellar and threw into the cesspool. Not an unusual practice in Victorian London’s Soho neighborhood.

On the 28th, after suffering three straight days, Baby Lewis began to show signs of improvement. Sarah thought to give her chap-lipped baby a little water from the refreshing pump just 10 feet from the Lewis’s front door on 40 Broad Street. Four hours later the baby’s symptoms violently returned. The doctor was called, but it was too late for Baby Lewis; her last diaper was filled with clear liquid and little pieces of rice.

In the late summer air of London’s Victorian streets, many professionals believed miasma to be the culprit. Dr. John Snow had his doubts. Snow had worked with gases, becoming the first professional anesthesiologist to use ether safely. He believed for a gas to be effective it must be delivered to the lungs in concentrated doses.

Before microbes were discovered, poisoned miasma was blamed for many a disease. For instance, the mosquito born malaria was thought to be caused by “bad air” for it derives its name from the Italian “mal aria.” It was the same year as England’s cholera plague that an Italian discovered the comma shaped microbe “Vibrio cholera.” Unfortunately, the Italian’s paper on the microscopic parasite went unnoticed.

Snow, along with another amateur sleuth, The Reverend Henry Whitehead, proved the disease to be waterborne. Both men went door-to-door during and after the tragedy ministering and asking the question. Did you drink water from the Broad Street pump?

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson will have you unraveling the mysteries of a Victorian enigma.

Note: Fifth book for Joy's Non-Fiction Five Challenge.