Comments by Moira McAlister January 2021
I saw this book advertised online while I was reading a related article. It was advertised as ‘a thumping good read’ and I ordered it immediately. On the back cover is this brilliant description ‘It is a rattling scientific mystery, but in the hands of Steven Johnson it becomes something much richer… a vast interconnected picture about urban and bacterial life… it is difficult to do justice to the exuberance of Johnson’s ideas.’
The book tells in very readable terms the devastation caused the cholera outbreak in Soho, London 1854-55, and the subsequent investigations by Dr John Snow (famous for his work introducing ether and chloroform to surgery) and a parish priest Henry Whitehead, who had an intimate knowledge of his parish. Dr Snow proposed the waterborne theory for the spread of the disease in the very early stages, but the miasmaists rejected his theory in favour of the prevailing airborne theory. Whitehead, originally a miasmaist, gradually saw Snow’s point of view and together they worked to prove that the source of the problem was the Broad Street pump which drew from a well polluted by the human waste which contained the cholera virus sourced from the Thames.
It is Johnson’s writing that brings this story to life and makes it a ‘thumping good read’. I noted these page numbers as I read
P43 ‘Normally an organism like Vibrio Cholera faces a difficult cost-benefit analysis: a particularly lethal strain can make untold billions of copies of itself in a matter of hours, but that reproductive success usually kills off the human body that made the reproduction possible. If those billions of copies don’t find their way into another intestinal tract quickly, then the whole process is for naught… In environments where the risk of transmission is low, the better strategy is to pursue a low-intensity attack on the human host: reproduce in smaller numbers, and keep the human alive longer, in the hope that over time some bacterial cells will find their way into another intestine, where the process can start all over again.’
P 95: ‘Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases; the tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that hadn’t already perished during the boiling of the water. The explosion of tea drinking in the 17th Century was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust.’
P162: ‘The removal of the pump handle at the Broad Street well was a historical turning point, and not just because it marked the end of London’s most explosive outbreak. History has its epic thresholds where the world is transformed in a matter of moments- a leader is assassinated, a volcano erupts, a constitution is ratified. But there are other, smaller turning points that are no less important. A hundred disparate historical trends converge on a single, modest act – some unknown person unscrews the handle of a pump on a side street in a bustling city – and in the years and decades that follow, a thousand changes ripple out from that simple act. It is not that the world is changed instantly; the change itself takes many years to become visible. But the change is no less momentous for its quiet evolution.
I could have copied the whole book, there were so many unusual images, comparisons, phrases and words that Johnson used to give life to this story. The story itself was interesting but it is that ‘giving life’ that makes a book stand out, makes an author remembered, makes the act of writing a craft.