LXVIII: The Broad Street Pump

In terms of television characters, few are more loved by modern audiences than the famous Jon Snow. He was born in the North, one of many children, apprenticed to a distant land at a young age, and destined to become the man who would stop people from pooping themselves to death.

Wait. Wrong Jon Snow.

John “Not from Game of Thrones” Snow was born on North Street in York, England, in 1813. The eldest of nine children, he was sent to Newcastle upon Tyne to be a surgeon’s apprentice at the age of 14. There he was first introduced to cholera, a disease that causes sufferers to poop their guts out until they dehydrate to death. Not a pretty picture.

Cholera was a particularly big problem in urban England at the time. It was gruesome, virulent, and worst of all, nobody knew what to do about it. Medicine at the time ascribed to the miasma theory of disease, which held that illness was caused by “bad air” and that going somewhere where the air smelled nice could cure you. Also called “night air”, it was believed that these noxious gases were the source of all disease. The germ theory of disease — the modern concept of microscopic organism as carriers of contagion — wouldn’t come along until much later, coined by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s. Since everyone thought cholera was caused by stinky air, they were not doing a great job curing it. They were completely unaware that the disease was passed through contact with contaminated feces. For several decades, much of Europe had a deadly case of the runs.

In 1854, the particularly unsanitary Soho district of London had a massive outbreak of cholera. It began on August 31, and within three days, 128 people had died. In a week, three quarters of the district’s residents had fled, and by the time the epidemic ended in late September, 616 people had died — an astounding 12.8 mortality rate. Trusting in the miasma theory of disease, the people of Soho, with their basements full of fecal cesspools, their water supply thoroughly contaminated with waste of all varieties, and no sewage system whatsoever, were entirely confused as to why they were getting sick.

That’s when John Snow stepped in. He began monitoring the outbreak and soon noticed that the majority of the deaths occurred in close proximity to the Broad Street Pump, a major water source in Soho. He also discovered that five infected schoolchildren from a different neighborhood had stopped at the Broad Street Pump for a drink on their way to school. He drew this map, marking cholera deaths with black bars. He was soon able to tie all the cases but two to drinking water from the Broad Street Pump. The outliers were a woman from the other side of town and her niece visiting from the country. Perplexed at first, interviews with the woman’s son revealed that she had once lived in the Broad Street area and was so fond of the taste of the water from the pump that she regularly had it bottled and brought to her. She served this bottle Broad Street water to her visiting niece, and both were infected. The local monks also seemed totally unimpacted, but it was discovered that they only drank beer and never visited the pump.

Snow concluded that the water from the Broad Street Pump must be the cause of the infection. He also determined that the Southwark & Vauxhall Waterworks Company had been taking water from the sewage-polluted Thames and selling it as drinkable. The Broad Street Pump Handle was removed and further outbreaks were avoided.

Eventually, John Snow was even able to locate Patient Zero — a baby whose mother washed its dirty, cholera-ridden diapers in a leaky cesspool only 3 feet from the pump that was draining into the pump’s well. Ironically, cholera can now be easily cured by simply providing the infected person with antibiotics and large amounts of oral fluids.

Moral of the story: please do not put your sick baby’s poop in the drinking water.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s