The Ghost Map

I read a book called The Ghost Map, which is about the discovery of the source of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854. It talks about the unique set of circumstances that gave John Snow a point a view that led him to the Broad street pump as the source of the outbreak. One thing that helped him was his experience with chloroform and ether, which had recently come into use in medicine. From experimentation on himself as well as his collection of lab animals, he was able to create a standard by which the gases were used. He was so renowned for his work in anesthetic gases, he was asked to administer chloroform to Queen Victoria during childbirth.

jonsnow lab



Bad Medicine: flatulence cures

Samuel Pepys was kind of a weirdo

Samuel Pepys was kind of a weirdo


Samuel Pepys lived during the 17th century and is most noted for having kept a personal diary that gives us rare glimpses into everyday life at the time as well as major events like the Plague of London and the Great Fire.

He evidently believed that a hare’s foot had cured his, ahem, wind, and writes of it quite happily.

The Black Death comes to Europe

In October of 1347, a ship docked at Messina in Sicily with all sailors aboard either dead or dying from plague. They came from Caffa, or Kaffa, located in Crimea. It is believed Caffa received the pestilence from Mongol trebuchets during a siege of the city. From here on out, Europe was to have outbreaks year after year, eventually losing up to a third of it’s population by some estimates.

Things take a dark turn in 1346

Things take a dark turn in 1347

14th Century woes: The Black Death

I’ve recently come across the interesting ways in which infectious disease has played a part in the way geographic regions and peoples change in their language customs. In the 14th century, during one of the multiple outbreaks of the Black Death, so many french tutors died that children in Britain began to be educated in their native language, thus helping its spread.

french-eng copy

Translation: You’re S.O.L. kids, Girard is out, Cobb is in.

source: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Tuchman

Mortality and Morbidity in Human History: Cholera

Cholera probably originated in South Asia and made a home in the Ganges and the Yangtze Rivers. In Bengal, there’s actually a goddess of cholera. It didn’t make it into the west until 1817, most likely through armies first and then pilgrims filled in the gaps.

The first couple great pandemics were spread by British armies traveling between India, Persia and England and killed hundreds of thousands. Soldiers reportedly died as they marched, having only caught the disease that morning.


19th century cholera ward

Cholera was brought to America in 1831. It went from Canada to New York State with the first documented case cited in June 26, 1832. American business being what is has always been, proved to be a vocal opposition to closing down public places because of the effect it would have on commerce. This tactic had been used to good effect elsewhere.

It was an Italian scientist, Filippo Pacini, that discovered the bug first sometime between 1854-63. Robert Koch rediscovered it in 1883 and got credit for it for decades. Not until the 1960’s was Pacini honored as the first to make the discovery when the bacteria that causes the disease was officially named Vibrio cholera Pacini.


Cholera victims present with profuse diarrhea which has a characteristic “rice water” appearance. This quickly leads to dehydration. If not properly supported, the victim then experiences a drop in blood pressure as the body’s fluid levels decrease. This can cause collapse and renal failure as the kidneys fail to receive adequate perfusion.

Cholera is spread via contaminated water so it tends to not be a danger in developed nations. There are currently two cholera vaccines though neither are available in the U.S.. Sanitation and water treatment facilities are by far, the best way to prevent cholera outbreaks. In areas of the world where large numbers of people are living together without these things, outbreaks still occur. Last year, Yemen experienced an outbreak and currently, Kenya is experiencing one in the Daadab complex, which houses around 350,000 displaced people.


source: Plagues & Poxes: the Impact of Human History on epidemic disease