Thursday, 14 June 2018

The shadow of cholera

For many nights he lies in bed, without getting up by day. He is tired and sleepy. A harsh-voiced man comes to the bed, and says that he must not lay his hands outside the coverlet. They give him evil-tasting stuff with a spoon; he eats nothing. There is whispering in the room, and his mother weeps. Then he sits again at the window in the bedroom. Bells are tolling the whole day long.

Green biers are carried over the churchyard. Sometimes a dark mass of people stand round a black chest. Gravediggers with their spades keep coming and going. He has to wear a copper plate suspended by a blue silk ribbon on his breast, and chew all day at a root. That is the cholera epidemic of 1854.

August Strindberg – The Son of a Servant (1886 - 1909)

A quote taken from Strindberg's autobiographical novel. In 1854 he would have been five years old. It opens up a chink of light on a world without modern medical science and what a grim world it must have been. Dickens’ world, Jane Austen’s world and yet this is just one of the shadows under which they lived. Also in 1854 there was the Broad Street cholera outbreak in London.

This outbreak, which killed 616 people, is best known for the physician John Snow's study of its causes and his hypothesis that contaminated water, not air, was the source of cholera.

To my mind the most difficult aspect is trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be familiar with the dangers of cholera yet ignorant of its root cause. We often seem to take knowledge for granted yet hard-won knowledge is the gulf between now and then.


Sam Vega said...

The Broad Street outbreak was one of many, which killed thousands in all. I bet the news reports were sad but dignified, in contrast to the hysteria, emoting, and political points-scoring which are associated with Grenfell Tower.

James Higham said...

Even as late as the 50s with polio.

Scrobs. said...

There would have been a little news which filtered out to the local community, Sam, but like you say, Grenfell is being plastered over every country in the world, because of 'victims'.

Yes, it was dreadful, but I bet plague sufferers just accepted that the nasty disease was always just around the corner, as was cholera of course. The latter is still around in Asia, but the plague is buried in churchyard pits in every town and village in the country.

Demetrius said...

One of the horrors of the 19th Century was the "cholera" ships moored off ports forbidden to dock until any cholera on boards had been cleared by time and death. Ships that had sailed from ports in the East who had crew or passengers whose cholera only emerged once the voyage had begun. It could be a reason for some of the stories of "ghost ships".

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes many thousands. The contrast with Grenfell Tower is embarrassing.

James - we just avoided that but a former member of our walking group caught it as a child and still walked with a limp.

Scrobs - if you add up all the diseases there are quite a few. TB was another.

Demetrius - I suppose it was all people could try to do in these cases - strict isolation.

Dan said...

If you read John Snow's account of cholera in London, looking at it with the eye of a scientist as I do, then one thing stands out clear as day: there were no statistical tests in those days.

Today the likes of us in science think almost nothing of bunging the results of a field trial through ANOVA, or one of the more modern non-parametric multiple statistical tests. Even a simple t test is streets ahead of what John Snow had.

We are, I think, truly blessed to have such mathematics as this, which now underpins so very much of our society yet is so little known.

Raise a glass of Guinness in memory of that clerk in the Guinness brewery who invented Student's t.

A K Haart said...

Dan - yet some statisticians seem to think scientists commonly misuse statistical tests. The problem seems to be particularly acute when small effects are being extracted from noise. We had problems like that with detection limits in environmental samples.