Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel

book cover

The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump:
John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera
by Sandra Hempel

ISBN-13: 9780520250499
Hardback: 331 pages
Publisher: University of California Press
Released: 2007

Source: Bought through Half.com.

Book Description from Cover:
In 1831, an unknown, horrifying, and deadly disease from Asia swept across continental Europe and North America, killing millions and throwing the medical profession into confusion. A killer with little respect for class or wealth, cholera rocked Victorian England when it arrived in its capital, where it indiscriminately ravaged the squalid streets of Soho and the great centers of power.

In this gripping book, Sandra Hempel tells the story of John Snow, a reclusive doctor without money or social position, who--alone and unrecognized--had the genius to look beyond the conventional wisdom of his day and uncover the truth behind the pandemic. She describes how Snow discovered that cholera was spread through drinking water and how this subsequently laid the foundations for the modern, scientific investigation of today's fatal plagues.

A dramatic account with a colorful cast of characters, The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump features diversions into fascinating facets of medical and social history, such as Snow's tending of Queen Victoria in childbirth, Dutch microbiologist Leeuwenhoek's deliberate breeding of lice in his socks, Dickensian children's farms, and riotous nineteenth-century anesthesia parties. What emerges is the dramatic story of an important breakthrough for medical science, and of one individual's determination to use science to help others. An afterword discusses how global warming will likely increase the risk of infectious diseases--including malaria, yellow fever, and cholera.

My Review:
The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump describes the waves of cholera that spread across the world from 1817 to 1866, what was done to treat it, and what was discovered about it. While many people and places were mentioned, we learned the most about John Snow since he made the greatest discovery about how cholera was spread and the main focus was on the cholera-related events in London, England. The book also described related topics like the medical and sanitary practices of the day, medical training, etc. Sometimes it felt like the author was wandering off topic, but these asides still gave an interesting look at the time period.

The author frequently quoted letters, journal articles, case notes, etc., from that time period They described what someone sick with cholera went through, the medical views on the spread and treatment of cholera, etc. There were also black-and-white illustrations: political cartoons and posters about cholera from that time period.

If talking about drinking water that contains feces and mentions of people throwing up grosses you out, then you might not enjoy the many vivid descriptions in this book. However, I found it an interesting, easy read from start to finish. The author clearly explained the (few) medical terms she used as well as any outdated phrasings in the quotes that might be confusing.

Cholera is another example of how the majority of scientists at that time were so sure of their own ideas about how sickness was transmitted that they couldn't see the truth even when John Snow clearly showed that they were wrong. Anyone who believes that "if most scientists say it then it must be true" should read books like this. :) Maybe they're right, maybe they aren't, but they aren't right just because they're in the majority.

In any case, I recommend this book to those who aren't easily grossed out who are interested in cholera and the advances in science that occurred while trying to fight it.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Read an excerpt using Google Preview.

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