Modern history



THERE ARE TWO INDISPENSABLE RESOURCES FOR UNDERstanding the life and work of John Snow. The first is the exhaustive Web archive devoted to all things Snow, maintained by the UCLA epidemiology professor Ralph Frerichs. The site, accessible at, has everything from annotated reproductions of various maps of the period to a multimedia tour of the Broad Street outbreak to a complete digital collection of Snow’s writing. The second is Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine, written by a multidisciplinary team of scholars (Peter Vinten-Johansen and others) from Michigan State University. The book is both a biography of Snow himself and a clear and insightful survey of the intellectual landscape he traveled during the course of his life. Both resources were essential to the writing of this book, and I highly recommend them for anyone interested in exploring John Snow’s work in more detail.

For readers interested in the map itself, and in Snow’s legacy as an information designer, Edward Tufte’s account is by now the canonical one, though his initial telling of the story—in his 1983 book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information—was factually wrong on several fronts, as he acknowledged in his subsequent work, Visual Explanations, which offered a more nuanced account of the Broad Street outbreak (and which managed to reproduce Snow’s map itself, instead of the secondhand copy that ran in the first book). Tom Koch’s brilliant Cartographies of Disease offers a comprehensive look at Snow’s place in the specific tradition of disease mapping.

There are innumerable portraits of Victorian London, but Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is still the most riveting and thorough account of the city’s vast underclass, rivaled only by Engels’ London chapters from The Condition of the English Working Class. Among the contemporary accounts, Liza Picard’s Victorian London, Roy Porter’s London: A Social History, and Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography are all worth reading. On the future of cities, I recommend Stewart Brand’s essay “City Planet” and Richard Rogers’ Cities for a Small Planet. The best account of the psychological and cultural impact of urbanization remains Raymond Williams’ masterly The Country and the City. Stephen Halliday’s The Great Stink tells the amazing story of Joseph Bazalgette’s battle to build London’s sewer system. For a modern look at waste management, I recommend William Rathje and Cullen Murphy’s Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage. Readers interested in the social history of beverages—including tea, coffee, and spirits—will want to read Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses.

On the scale of bacteria, the seminal work in the field remains Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan’s mind-opening Microcosmos. Though it doesn’t deal directly with cholera, Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex is also a fascinating exploration of our microscopic fellow-travelers. For a unnerving look at the failure of modern public-health infrastructure, see Laurie Garrett’s Betrayal of Trust.

The story of the Broad Street outbreak itself has been sketched in numerous books, usually with significant distortions. Many accounts assume that Snow created the map during the outbreak, or that he developed the waterborne theory from his investigations at Broad Street. Henry Whitehead is often ignored altogether. And so the best sources for understanding the outbreak are still John Snow and Henry Whitehead themselves. Their various published accounts of the events are available online at the UCLA site, and at a special John Snow archive hosted by Michigan State University.

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