The man himself, Dr John Snow. Courtesy Kew Bridge Steam Museum.
Jonathan Parker travelled to Kew for lesson in medical history.
Dr Snow And The Fight Against King Cholera is an exhibition at Kew Bridge Steam Museum that tells the story of how one man took on the killer of 10,000 people – and won.
The exhibition, which runs until May 29, shows how a study, by a doctor named John Snow, of people suffering from cholera – a deadly disease that killed more than 10,000 Londoners between 1853 and 1854 – led to a colossal discovery that saved the lives of tens of thousands of others.
As well as Dr John himself, you’ll also meet Cyril and Nosher - two hairy cholera germs who help explain the story to the youngsters - and discover the revolting history of the London sewers in which the cholera epidemic began.
Dr Snow's amazing discovery was that cholera is communicated by means of dirty water – not as a result of the ‘miasma’, or bad air, that people blamed before.
Death comes through the water for the people of 19th century London. Courtesy Kew Bridge Steam Museum.
He made the discovery after watching people drink from a well at Broad Street, in London’s Soho. After a baby became ill with cholera nearby, he noticed that within hours of her mother washing its dirty nappies, hundreds of other people became ill with cholera too. Dr Snow realized that this was because the dirty water from the cesspit was seeping into the well, and was infecting people when they drank.
His discovery led to reforms that ended the epidemic, and the John Snow pub still commemorates the spot where the well stood today.
As well as Dr Snow, you’ll learn about the other characters associated with the London sewers. These include the ‘gongfermas’ of 14th century London - the lowly cesspit cleaners who risked drowning in sewage for the sake of the valuables they sometimes discovered – and the ‘night soil men’ who sold sewage for use as fertilizer on the gardens of Georgian England.
You’ll also meet the ‘Flashers’ and ‘Toshers’ who made a living scouring Victorian London’s network of 369 sewers for valuable rubbish, and read about the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 - the government’s disastrous attempt to flush out the sewer system that left all of London smelling like a toilet!
Meet Nosher - a colourful character ready to introduce guests to the unhygienic side of life. Courtesy Kew Bridge Steam Museum.
Kids with an interest in cooking may also want to check out Cyril and Nosher’s recipe for Monster Soup. This traditional recipe, which remained popular in London till late Victorian times, feeds 2,362,000 and is easy to prepare – just remember to bring a big mixing bowl, several thousand tonnes of water and some poo, wee wee, dead animals and germs!
The exhibition concludes with a section all about London’s modern day sewer system. This shows how the changing times have brought different challenges for the utility companies in trying to keep clean water flowing for eight million people – such as the enormous blockages of fat from fast food restaurants that inspectors need pneumatic hammers to remove – and what happens to the dirty water we flush down our plug holes and toilets.
Jonathan Parker is participating in the 24 Hour Museum/ MGM Arts Writing Prize 2005.