Some reading for Monday

I just started reading the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, about the cholera epidemic that hit London in 1854. This particular epidemic in London (there had been several since 1831) led to a revolution in sanitation and helped move medicine towards empirical science and further away from folk remedies.

An example of the folk remedies would be all the doctors who would suggest that people take potions that dehydrate a person even further, the opposite of what a cholera patient needs.

So, the first chapter has a good discussion of how cholera spreads, and how the strain becomes even more virulent in crowded cities, where it transmits from person to person very quickly, with the most powerful mutations having an opportunity to flourish through that transmission. It also has a good discussion of the scavengers throughout the city, the poor, itinerants who collected all sorts of waste around a city that had not formal infrastructure to deal with the realities of human consumption.

One of the problems was that the night-soil men* charged too much money, because as the city expanded, the trek to dump the hauls got further and further away. Landlords - not living on the properties they owned - decided to quit using them, and just allow the cesspools overflow. (Yuck). Thus, an environment ripe for a cholera epidemic.

Anyway ... that's all pretty gross, but it combines my interests in London, urban planning and the history of science all into one book. And it reminds me of a great mock-epic poem of the 17th century (okay, really it was just all the talk of sewers and poop that reminded me of the poem. But it's a fun poem).

In the interest of sharing my fondness of the historical London with my aim to introduce people to 17th century literature, I thought I'd send you to Ben Jonson's "On the Famous Voyage" (originally published in his book Epigrams). The title of the poem invokes Sir Francis Drake's "Famous Voyage" - his circumnavigation of the globe. It's a heroic trip through the "sewers" of Jacobean London, and includes a great deal of information about those relatively invisible scavengers who made the city work. (The poem is on the long side, but that link has pretty decent notes).

Oh ... and if you're interested in learning about other works you've never read, may I suggest the Forgotten Classics blog?

*That's pretty much what you think it is. They cleaned all the human waste out of the cesspools in the city and carried it out to the countryside. This makes for really fertile soil.

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