In the past I have occasionally been asked who my heroes are. I have usually mentioned in this context Dr. John Snow. He it was, I have said, who persuaded the authorities of the time to remove the pump handle of the Broad Street well in Soho, London, thus bringing to an end the cholera epidemic of 1854 and convincing the authorities of the time that the cholera bacterium lives in water contaminated with fecal matter. Well, it wasn't quite like that. But it was because of Snow's work, though not only his, that there have only very rarely been cholera outbreaks in England since 1854. I recommend a book called "Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson, which tells this story. He tells it as an adventure, and that is what it is. Epidemics happen, and people die. But often the cause is not known. Why do some people die and not others? Why did those who worked in the sewers of London, in close contact with fecal matter every day, usually live to healthy old ages? Can one person, by their actions or their simple presence in a place and at a time, be responsible for an outbreak and for the deaths of people? If so, and if they know it, what does that do to them? A very interesting theme of this book was that "everyone" knew at the time what caused epidemics. Bad air, bad smells, bad living conditions. Well, no, actually. And I wondered while reading, what today does "everyone" know, which someone with the vision of Dr Snow will one day make us see is wrong beyond imagining, and that people have died as a result of our wrong imaginings?
I first found out about Dr Snow when my children were at the excellent E.P. Collier primary school in Reading, and they studied public health and water supply. No such important or imaginative things were on the curriculum when I was going to school. "Ghost Map" is a fast-moving read, though there were times I had to stop reading while I was eating (description of cholera symptoms, anyone?), and highly thought-provoking. We don't eat or drink things that smell bad. People used the Broad Street well because the water tasted good. Cholera bacteria don't have a taste.
Go to Soho now and you will find that Broad Street no longer exists. Where it was, approximately, is a street called Broadwick. All but one of the buildings which housed the crowded population of Soho in the mid-19th century are no more. This has a lot more to do with the Luftwaffe than with cholera. However, the pub on the corner still stands (brewery and pub workers by and large did not get cholera, because they drank beer and not water). It has a new name. The John Snow. Next time I am in London I shall go and have a drink there and raise a glass to Dr. Snow's memory.
Totally by coincidence, the next book of the collection of e-books (Kindle for iPad, vg) I had bought and downloaded to read while travelling in Australia this month was the latest Philip Roth, "Nemesis". It is about another epidemic, of polio in 1940s Newark, New Jersey, and what that epidemic does to the individuals it touches. The themes are the same. I found the Roth shocking. A story of a young man, with hopes and dreams, things are looking good for him. And then... All through the book I was waiting for the next thing to happen, the next episode in the story of Bucky (a real jock name that, not a nerdy Jewish boy's name) Cantor, and what polio does to his Jewish neighbourhood. One reviewer of this book said Roth's humour in later life (he is 77) is black bile where it has been choler. Yes. Black, dark, and utterly compelling.
I was born in 1954, the first year that universal polio vaccination was available to babies in the UK. I was vaccinated, although my mother wondered briefly whether injecting polio into a baby was a good idea. People I knew as I grew up, only a few years older than me, had often had polio, or been affected by it in some way. Part of the reason I did not learn to swim until I was 11 was a generalised fear in working-class communities of "catching polio" from public swimming pools. Ignorance. Which now manifests itself in fear of mobile-phone masts, in belief in the nonsense that the MMR vaccine causes autism, and in homeopathy. Among other things.
Because we know we are right. Don't we?