History, Public Health, and London

During this two week Intro to Epidemiology course, I had the chance to be face to face with historic symbols and monuments that showcased how formative Epidemiologists were addressing the Sustainable Development goals long before the U.N. was formed. The two figures that I’d like to discuss in this post are John Snow and Thomas Coram. These men created ways to improve clean water and sanitation as well as good health and well being in 18th and 19th century London. In the early 19th century, the main water sources known as the Thames River was opened to be used as a sewer. This was just as alarming as it sounds. So when cholera broke out, you’d think everyone would look towards the dark brown water they were drinking like John Snow, but instead, they held fast to the Medieval beliefs of miasma or “bad air” as the cause for this epidemic. No one supported Snow’s hypothesis and evidence of bad water. So he took it upon himself to break the handle off the water pump. I think the most valuable lesson here is that sometimes, people have to go against popular belief in order to do what is right for the community and leave a profound legacy- at least when they have hard evidence that they’re right.

Like Snow, Thomas Coram was not only appalled by the conditions for people in London, but also by the lack of care or respect given for the lives of children. The worst circumstances for infants, toddlers, and young kids were during the gin crisis when adults would drown their misery in this cheap liquor, and many un-wed women would abandon their babies in the street to die or be taken up by someone else. You’d think these situations would appeal to the morals of the poor and the rich. But on the contrary, was true. It took Coram 17 years to gather the signatures needed to build a Hospital for children where they’d be fed, clothed, clean, and taught a skill. Not surprisingly, all 21 of the first signatures were from women. Their husbands were the second set of 21 signatures. I see this as an expression of women feeling empowered to speak for themselves on controversial issues. And in the grand scheme of things, they played a huge role in improving the well-being and treatment of children in the U.K. from the 18th century, onward.

Learning about how infectious diseases were managed as well as how the concept of “childhood” has developed was interesting. Both showcase an important truth: modern society cannot turn backwards. We must constantly question the knowledge we’re given and stand against abuse and injustice, even when it is unpopular or the consequences are not in our favor.

Image of women whose children were not accepted by the Foundling Hospital

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