Collaborative science in the 1850s

14 Sep

I just finished reading a nice book about John Snow and London in the mid-19th century. The book tells the story of Snow’s idea that Cholera is transmitted through water (and not air). The book has a website here.

The book is from 2006, so chances are that you have already read it.

I was reading the book in the hope to learn more about diseases and epidemiology, but I think I ended up learning more about research in general. I also learned that London was a smelly place in the 1850s.
The book is full of wonderful lessons for a young researcher. For example, the book shows that

1. Research is hardly ever done by one person alone. John Snow was probably a great researcher, but he couldn’t have done his important work on Cholera without the help of statistician Farr and reverend Whitehead. Even in the 1850s, science was a collaborative enterprise.
2. It is OK if people don’t believe you. In fact, a lot of the evidence for the waterborne transmission route of Cholera came from Whitehead, who was on a mission to disprove Snow’s theory.
3. Changing opinions takes time. It took many years, lots of data and papers before people started to believe Snow’s idea, even though Snow was well known and a respected physician.

The map that figures in the title of the book didn’t reproduce well on my Kindle, so I had to look it up on Wikipedia later.

John Snow Cholera Map from Wikipedia

John Snow Cholera Map

Honestly, I find the map not very impressive. Sure, it may be important in the history of epidemiology and the history of data visualization, but I was slightly disappointed that the map wasn’t clearer. It is supposed to show that all the deaths occurred near one pump. But The locations of the pumps are not very clear at all. It also doesn’t show the surprising pockets of Cholera absence that are described in the book and that were important for Snow’s inference.

The book is highly recommended!

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One Response to “Collaborative science in the 1850s”

  1. historicalwritings October 6, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    Having just written articles covering London’s history of the 19th century, and this article of yours popped up. I am surprised it took them so long to find the cause. With sewers in London nearly two hundred years old now, there must be cracks in them now, and London so overcrowded it is surprising that outbreaks of cholera have not broken out, yet again.

    It is an epidemic waiting to happen!

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