Good Intentions Are Not Enough


Another lesson from an intriguing book by Steven Johnson, is that Edwin Chadwick’s good intentions were not enough to beat the cholera epidemic in London.  Johnson tells of Chadwick’s two catastrophic illusions:


The first was his belief that, since the mephitic odors of private cesspools posed such a clear and present danger to health, sewage ought instead to be discharged down public drains into the Thames, from which most Londoners took their drinking water. As the great builder Thomas Cubitt remarked: "The Thames is now made a great cesspool instead of each person having one of his own."

The consequences of this well-intentioned blunder were worse even than those of the decision of the Lord Mayor during the Great Plague of 1665-66 to exterminate all the city’s dogs and cats because of the false rumor that they were spreading the plague, thus allowing an exponential increase in the population of the rats who were the real transmitters.

Having contaminated a large part of the population he was trying to protect, Chadwick committed his second mistake, sternly setting his face against the simple explanation that would bring about a cure. To his dying day — which did not come until 1890 — Chadwick remained an unrepentant miasmatist, as proponents of the airborne explanation for cholera were known. So was Florence Nightingale. The Lancet, the leading medical journal, venomously denounced the waterborne theory and its dogged proponent, John Snow.


For the full review, see: 

FERDINAND MOUNT.  "BOOKS; Lost in a Time of Cholera; How a doctor’s search solved the mystery of an epidemic in Victorian London."  The Wall Street Journal   (Sat., October 21, 2006):  P8.


The reference to the book is:

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.  299 pages, $26.95


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