Tuesday, 15 March 2016

London's Great Stinks, Cholera, and John Snow

Between 1800 and 1860, London's population grew from 1 to 3 million. Sanitation lagged far behind growth. Wells were contaminated by overflowing and leaking privies. Streets were full of human and animal wastes. The Thames was a giant sewer, fed by the smaller sewers under the streets. It was also the major source of drinking water, as illustrated in George Cruikshank's cartoon of 1832.

By mid-century, the river had become so, pardon me, shitty, that summers were often marked by what were called "Great Stinks." The stinks sometimes coincided with severe cholera epidemics. In one such epidemic, in 1849, John Snow argued that cholera was spread through foul drinking water. In 1855, he demonstrated it through a pioneering epidemiological investigation of cholera deaths in one neighborhood in Soho, where most victims had drunk water from a pump on Broad (now Broadwick) St. (Image: John Snow)

Few people paid much attention to Snow's work at the time but lots noticed the evil stink of the Thames. Scientist Michael Faraday, wrote to the  Times pointing out the necessity of cleaning up the river. The whole of the river, he said, was an opaque brown fluid, a fermenting feculent sewer. The satirical magazine Punch published the cartoon below of Faraday introducing himself to a crap-covered god of the river, Father Thames.

Nothing happened at the time, but three years later, in the summer of 1858, another Great Stink aroused Parliament to action. The parliament building was right next to the river and the MPs found the smell intolerable. They passed an act to lay a new sewer system dumping wastes in the country instead of the river. Within a few years the Thames was much cleaner, and the health of the population improved. Punch saluted the improvement with a cartoon of Father Thames cleaned up and robust.

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