Recognized author Richard Holmes recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal Review section an article titled When Outbreaks Give a Voice to the Forgotten. “During London’s 1849 cholera epidemic, an unlikely chronicler let city’s poor speak out- in ways now echoed in today’s social media.” Cholera is a bacterial infection of the small intestine by the bacteria Vibrio Cholera. The classic symptoms are vomiting and severe diarrhea that can result in dehydration and frequently death within hours. Vaccines are given orally but protection can only last for about six months. An estimated 3-5 million people are infected annually, predominately in areas with poor sanitation and unclean drinking water.
Holmes wrote: “Throughout 1849, London endured a cholera outbreak in which 14,173 people died-mostly in the poor districts of the East End, like Whitechapel and Bermondsey, astride the River Thames. No one had discovered the disease’s exact cause or the means of transmission, though it was thought (incorrectly) to be an airborne ‘miasma’….There was no known treatment.” A London newspaper, The Morning Chronicle, assigned a freelance writer to investigate the illness. In September of 1849, he wrote a 10,000 word article, “A Visit to the Cholera Districts of Bermondsey”. The report was shocking to the readers. The author was revealed to be Henry Mayhew, a 37 year old reporter known as minor comic novelist.
“With reckless courage, Mayhew had gone directly to the worst affected area to see for himself. What he found was shocking and unforgettable- gagging urban stench, putrid open sewers, infested docks, seething rubbish pits and pallid sickly inhabitants, especially the children,” Holmes reported. He wrote: “In the sunlight the sewer water appeared the colour of strong green tea”. From 1849 to 1851, Mayhew published 82 articles about working class London. He wrote that “he was supplying information concerning a large body of persons, of whom the public has less knowledge than the most distant tribes of the earth”. The articles finally received the attention of the scientists. In 1850 the London Epidemiology Society was founded.
Due to the work of a young unknown physician, the possibility of public health began to emerge. Dr. John Snow famously identified a “single public water pump in Broad Street, Soho, as the waterborne source of local cholera contamination, and he dramatically had the pump handle removed to prove his point.” Equally important was his introduction of elementary concepts of public health. Mayhew had “transformed polite Victorian journalism into startling nonfiction reportage of daily life and, above all, the living speech of the industrial city.” Holmes noted: “In fact, you could now celebrate Snow with an uncontaminated pint of beer at the present John Snow Pub on London’s Broadwick Street- except that it is, of course, closed because of the corona virus.”