the odd couple that contained a possible pandemic


Updated:27/09/2020 01:52h


One of the current tourist claims of London is the cosmopolitan Soho neighborhood: there small shops coexist with department stores, theaters and concert halls, restaurants of all kinds and places, and bars that open «all day long». A carefree and cheerful place in which flowing dresses of all colors wave like flags in hundreds of shop windows. But it wasn’t always such a “chic” place. TO mid 19th century, the population, mostly poor immigrants, lived huddled and surrounded by the only vapor of their own filth. The city was growing at a rapid rate. So much so that there was no adequate infrastructure to prevent something as basic as the water they ingested and the excrement they expelled from not mixing. And that’s how a dirty diaper was the origin from worst cholera epidemic suffered by the British capital. Although also the best breeding ground for a strange couple made up of a priest and an anesthesiologist to shake the foundations of the progress of modern civilization.

This is the premise used by the scientific popularizer Steven Johnson in his work “The ghost map»(Reissue now rescued in Spanish by Capitán Swing), in which he presents a London on the brink of collapse due to its own waste: from the figure of the latrine cleaner, who was dedicated to literally removing the feces from the antiquated sewage system, to the nauseating smell caused by the spillage without control to Thames, which in 1858 originated the phenomenon known as «The Great Stench». Thus, when last days of August 1854 he Lewis’ baby got sick -now we would know him as patient zero- and his mother cleaned his diapers in a cesspool near the busy and well-regarded broad street fountain -It was said that its water was the highest quality in the area, so many people moved expressly from other parts of the city-, dozens of deaths were registered in a matter of hours throughout the Soho neighborhood.

This is where a totally unexpected historical binomial comes into play: the renowned anesthetist John Snow and the folksy reverend Henry Whitehead. Snow was a dry and taciturn doctor with his patients who, however, had won the respect and admiration of the entire society of the time, being one of the pioneers of modern anesthesia (he came to assist in the delivery of the eighth child of the Queen Victoria). For his part, Whitehead was a young anglican priest very attached to his community of St. Luke, on Berwick Street, very close to Soho Square, who knew the personal history of each of his parishioners by heart.

Science and patience

The anesthetist approached the problem with the eyes of a scientist: his intuition told him that there was a hidden explanation, a still invisible pattern that governed that outbreak of so virulent cholera, which left 616 dead in just one week. Snow had the idea that the disease was spread through water, contrary to what the miasmatics thought, the most accepted current that was convinced that evil was spread through bad smells – even the famous Florence Nightingale he supported this theory vehemently in the writings of the time.

That is why he dedicated himself to visiting house by house in the neighborhood, asking sick people and relatives about the origin of the water they had consumed – at that time, the theory that a living agent, called bacteria, was the cause of the disease, so the water could not simply be analyzed, as is the case today. This is how he drew a map whose epicenter was the Broad Street fountain. He September 5 got, not without effort, that remove the lever from the jet. From here, cases plummeted until the epidemic was controlled. But even so, the scientific community still did not believe the anesthesiologist’s approach.

Map created by Snow where each line is a dead one.  You can see that most are stacked around the Baker Street pump
Map created by Snow where each line is a dead one. You can see that most are stacked around the Baker Street pump

At first, Reverend Whitehead, after hearing Snow’s theory, also disagreed. And to prove that the doctor was wrong, started his own survey, much less methodical but including personal notes that later turned out to be decisive. This is how it got to a cesspool located in the basement of the Lewis family, where the baby’s mother cleaned the diapers. When they excavated the sinkhole, they discovered that, indeed, there were significant leaks that connected this well with the Broad Street sinkhole, convincing themselves that Snow – and not the miasmatics, as he himself thought – was right. The reverend gifted Snow with the definitive evidence for his theory, confirming that it had not been a mere fluke, but rather had proven causality.

This strange tandem that, by the way, ended in friendship, laid the foundations for the control of the following outbreaks of cholera. In addition, it served as motivation to reorient the sewage network, which from that moment discharges waste away from the city. A lesson in how scientific evidence coupled with local knowledge can stop an epidemic. Do these two concepts sound familiar to you?

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