A Travellerspoint blog

Professional Pilgrimage

London, England

semi-overcast 75 °F

As you may have seen with my last trip to India, I like to make the most of my layovers. Although I had already been to England with my family when I was fifteen, I was excited to go back because of a famous Londoner I had learned about during my graduate studies.

First stop - London!

John Snow (no, not the Game of Thrones character) was a renowned physician who lived in London in the 19th century. At the time, it was the conventional wisdom that cholera was transmitted through "miasma," a term that roughly means "dirty air." This was a classic case of correlation doesn't equal causation. It was common in that era for people to empty chamber pots into the streets or actually bury their waste under their house, making the surrounding air smell terrible. Cholera was also incredibly common at the time, killing tens of thousands of people a year. The dirtier the area, the more cholera tended to spring up, thus the theory.

Dr. Snow was convinced that it was actually transmitted by contaminated water and spent about ten years of his life trying to prove it. During the 1854 cholera epidemic, he drew a map of all the houses that had cholera and asked each of them where they got their drinking water. This was the first example of the discipline that is known as Geographic Information Systems, or the discipline that uses maps to understand patterns or relationships. Most of the cases were focused around a water source called the Broad Street pump. The few cases that were not near the pump were also interviewed and he found that they came all the way to Broad Street to get their drinking water because of, ironically, superior taste.

He presented the map and his findings to the London Health Commission, and still skeptical, they decided to deactivate the pump. The number of cases dropped overnight, but his work was not over. The health commission enlisted the services of a respected community member, Reverend Henry Whitehead, to investigate whether or not Dr. Snow's claims were true. He investigated the case for nearly a year and eventually concurred with Dr. Snow's theory. Although his theory was vindicated, Dr. Snow would was not formally recognized for his discovery until 10 years after his death.

This accomplishment would also serve as the birth of modern epidemiology, or the investigation of the distribution and the determinants of disease. In simpler terms, this is the discipline that deciphers who gets a disease and what specifically is causing it. This is the field I have been lucky enough to work in over the past five years, and I decided that I wanted to see the site for myself. Although the street is still there, it was renamed to "Broadwick Street." A small memorial is also there, but the real attraction is a pub that was renamed to the "John Snow" pub in honor of the physician. This is pretty fitting considering the only group to NOT get sick during that outbreak was a group of monks who lived nearby but who were strict beer-only drinkers. In that time, beer was not only fun to drink, it was also the only safe thing to drink.

The street where it all happened

The John Snow pub

The sign outside the pub

A portrait of the man himself

A reproduction of the map he drew

Reverend Henry Whitehead

A health alert for cholera

And the inevitable selfie out front

On the way to the John Snow pub, I actually got lost on the subway system and decided to walk part of the way using Google Maps. My one site pilgrimage turned into a public health tour as I accidentally walked up on St. Mary's hospital, the former employer of Sir Alexander Fleming.

Dr. Fleming had gone on vacation to his summer home for a few weeks during the summer of 1928 and forgotten to tidy up his work station before he left. He came back to a bacterial plate that had sprouted mold. While most of us would just throw these things away, he hesitated and noticed that the mold was actually preventing the growth of the bacteria. He decided to synthesize the mold into something he affectionately called "mold juice," and sure enough, it effectively prevented bacteria from growing. The mold was called Penicillium notatum, and so he decided to name his invention, penicillin. Dr. Fleming would eventually win the Nobel prize for his landmark discovery and warn of a world where bacteria may soon become resistant to antibiotics. Seventy years later we face a world increasingly enveloped by this reality, and new mechanisms are desperately needed to combat this ancient foe.

Mind the map

The favorite pub of Alexander Flemming

And his place of business, St. Mary's Hospital

Since I had a few more hours, I decided to walk around and see the typical tourist spots one more time. I made my way down to the Thames to see the London Eye and Big Ben. I got a few more accidental surprises along the way.

The National Gallery

Memorial to Sir Charles Napier

Another accidental find

The London Eye

A cool structure by the London Eye

The Thames River and Big Ben

Up close

After the walking (and more importantly the humidity) had started to cause fatigue, I decided to make my way back to the tube en route back to the airport. I arrived with two and a half hours to spare and prepped for my second red-eye in two days. As I boarded the plane, I laughed because of the plane's name (see below). It's safe to say that I got the full English experience despite only having six hours in the country.

Oh, James

Posted by mbeymer 09:34 Archived in England

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