Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The years of cholera

Sometimes, a book can transform your view of some other book without so much as a direct reference. One of the first things this blog did, back when it still seemed possible that I might finish Macaulay's History of England, was to mock this statement of optimism:

The difference in salubrity between the London of the nineteenth century and the London of the seventeenth century is very far greater than the difference between London in an ordinary year and London in a year of cholera.

Thanks to Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, I now know that I greatly underestimated the chutzpah involved. A "year of cholera" was not some immemorial curse. When Macaulay was born, in 1800, cholera was a disease that England heard of only when it devastated a British garrison in India. While he was studying at Trinity College, it was building a bridge of corpses across Europe. And while he was a new MP fighting for Reform...

In 1831, an outbreak tore through a handful of ships harboured in the river Medway, about thirty miles from London. Cases inland didn't appear until October of that year, in the northeast town of Sunderland, beginning with a William Sproat, the first Englishman to perish of cholera on his home soil. On February 8 of the following year, a Londoner named John James became the first to die in the city. By the outbreak's end, in 1833, the dead in England and Wales would number above 20,000. After that first explosion, the disease flared up every few years, dispathcing a few hundred souls to an early grave, and then go underground again. But the long-term trend was not an encouraging one. The epidemic of 1848-1849 would consume 50,000 lives in England and Wales.

As it happens, 1848-1849 is the period during which the first volumes of the History of England were published. That puts Macaulay's cheerfulness on a whole different level, no?

[The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, 2006. An old-fashioned story of scientific endeavour - empirical good sense and local knowledge, in the form of John Snow studying a Soho cholera outbreak, defeat fifth-hand argument from authority - made into something rather different by the author's determination to tell his tale at every scale from the microbial to the world-historical. His call for a "history of mistakes" (in this case, the mistake is the miasma theory of disease transmission that made cholera so difficult to understand) is somewhat undermined by his breezy and doubt-free way of throwing around currently fashionable ideas; this is not a book for anybody allergic to pat evolutionary psychology. But his confidence in digressing gives The Ghost Map most of its charm.]

Update: Tweaking the labels on this site I realise, somewhat embarrassedly, that I've come across part of this point before, barely a month after reading the Macaulay; I even gave it the same title. Oops. This latest version of the revelation is probably more startling, however; I don't think I previously realised that cholera was arriving for the first time, or how closely its rise could be seen to follow Macaulay's.


Mark Williams said...

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Jasper Milvain said...

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