Friday, July 25, 2008

The Broad Street Pump

Using the map in the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, I wound my way through the streets of Soho, which was just a short walk north of my hotel, to find the former site of the Broad Street pump: the pump which was contaminated in the late summer of 1854 and spread one of history's most horrifying and infamous cases of cholera to thousands of the poor, working-class people of the neighborhood.

Many of the smaller streets have new names, but the larger ones are still there, just as they were in 1854. My sister Martha, who is studying biology at DePaul University read the book last year while in an epidemiology course and gave it to me this spring. I was enthralled by Johnson's writing and the way he pieced the case back together, day by day. A brief synopsis from Johnson's website states:

It is the summer of 1854. Cholera ha
s seized London with unprecedented intensity. A metropolis of more than 2 million people, London is just emerging as a one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure necessary to support its dense population - garbage removal, clean water, sewers - the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure.

As their neighbors begin dying, two men are spurred to action: the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose faith in a benevolent God is shaken by the seemingly random nature of the victims, and Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion have been dismissed by the scientific community, but who is convinced that he knows how the disease is being transmitted. In a riveting day-by-day account, The Ghost Map chronicles the outbreak’s spread and the desperate efforts to put an end to the epidemic - and solve the most pressing medical riddle of the age.

When I reached the corner of Broad (now Broadwick) and Lexington (which used to be Cambridge) and stood in front of 40 Broadwick Street, where the fatal pump once stood, there was no discernible spot marking the site of it. I figured out, within a few feet, where I thought it must have stood and then noticed the name of the pub in front of me: The John Snow. How fitting! He was after all, the doctor who worked tirelessly and fearlessly during the outbreak and then for years after it, documenting each and every case, slowly proving to the public and the government what caused cholera and how it could be stopped.

His struggle was made increasingly difficult because the majority of doctors and scientists believed that cholera was caused by breathing in dirty or putrid smelling air, not from dirty drinking water. They were so strict in their attachment to this belief that they refused to listen to him even after he gathered tons of evidence proving a direct link between the cholera deaths around Broad Street in 1854 and the dirty diaper of a baby who died of cholera and lived in the building that I was standing in.

Cholera, as Snow discovered, is spread by ingesting or swallowing small particles found in the feces of a person who already has it. Obviously, even in a very dirty city like London in the 1850's no one intentionally ate something or drank something with human feces in it. BUT, due to the fact there were very few flushing toilets, most people dumped their waste in a cesspit in their basement or backyard area or out into the gutters in the street, and that the sewer system was fairly new in some areas and non-existent in others, human waste often found its way into the water that people drank.

According to Snow's reports, while the baby was dying, her mother rinsed her dirty diaper in a bucket of water and then dumped the water into the cesspit in the basement of their building. Years later, after much investigating and probing, Snow found that there was a leak in the well right in front of the house which allowed dirty water from the cesspit to run into the well and that well was connected to the Broad Street pump!

After getting some strange looks and a few questions from the bartender, I was able to snoop around the building. It was lovely inside and besides the framed newspaper clippings and portrait in a corner of the upstairs lounge, you'd never know that this was the formerly overcrowded, run-down house that stood at the epicenter of a terrible, disgusting disease. I was extremely curious about the basement, since it would be close to where the overrun cesspit once was, but unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it was clean and tidy and showed no trace of its former existence.

Dr. John Snow died in 1858 before the public widely accepted his theories about cholera. There were a few more outbreaks of cholera in the city and it wasn't until 1866 when another horrible outbreak occurred that another scientist tested Snow's ideas and traced the deaths along water-supply lines and found an immediate pattern: an overwhelming number of the dead had gotten their water from the same source. Therefore, at long last, the disease was said to be spread through drinking water and not foul-smelling air or miasma.

The illustration to the right was drawn in 1866 by George John Pinwell. It ran in an English magazine during that last large outbreak of cholera in London. It shows that finally:

public health officials were convinced that cholera was communicated through the water supply. Pinwell's image, which shows a skeleton figure of cholera working the handle of a pump, dispensing disease to all who imbibe the contaminated water, conveys the horror of the public realization that the population in 1866 might still unwittingly be exposing themselves to disease."
(Daniel M. Fox and Diane R. Karp, Images of Plague: Infectious Disease in the Visual Arts)

-- Go to this site created by the London Science Museum and click on the map half-way down the page to chart how the disease spread through the neighborhood

-- More of my photos of the intersection at Broad and Lexington and the John Snow pub

-- More on Dr. John Snow.

1 comment:

SRVill said...


Incredible stuff...the history about the pump was very informative and interesting. Thanks for all the updates it sounds like it was an awesome trip.