CSI: Victorian London

Dr John Snow was one of the first people to realise it wasn’t ‘bad air’ that caused many diseases.

Airship Flamel

Take one part Dr. Gregory House, add a bit of Sherlock Holmes and a pinch of modern forensic science, and you have Dr. John Snow, a man who solved one of the largest mass killings in Victorian London.

The culprit: cholera. Ever since it first appeared in Britain in 1831, cholera periodically ravaged the cities, leaving thousands dead in its wake. In 1848-9, over 14,000 Londoners died; in 1853-4, another 10,000 succumbed. That the disease was somehow related to the deplorable conditions of British cities at the time was clear, but the means of transmission was believed by all authoritative men of medicine to be via “miasma”. Miasma was thought to be a sort of poisonous vapor or mist originating from decomposing matter, called miasmata. (Similarly, the word “malaria” comes from the Italian meaning “bad air”.) To prevent outbreaks, it was thought to be a simple matter of removing the…

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