On Broad Street

This is a cross-post from The Gerasites by Saul Freeman

In 1854 there was an outbreak of cholera in Soho, in London. In the course of three days 127 people are believed to have died. By the time the outbreak had gone on for three weeks over 500 people in or around Broad St were dead. More than three quarters of the local Soho population fled in terror and the final death toll is listed at 616.

Cholera was universally feared and condemned by all as a terrifying and relentless taker of human life. But what was it, where did it come from and how did it spread?


A “noxious form of air”.

You couldn’t see it. You couldn’t smell it. You couldn’t place it, you had no idea what caused it and you couldn’t predict where it might strike next. You certainly couldn’t do anything to avoid it. You could instead simply fear it and condemn its awful effects when it arrived to wreak havoc and bring death. And then you could just bury the bodies in quick lime and wait for the next wave.

Londoners (and urban populations the world over) seemed condemned to live in perpetual fear of the cholera-bringing miasma. There was nothing anybody could do about it other than wring their hands in horror and distress.

But then a doctor called John Snow popped up. He did something radical – he used empirical evidence to investigate the Broad St cholera outbreak. He produced his famous “dot map” locating cases of the disease on a map of the local area. He used basic statistical techniques. And he demonstrated that the outbreak of cholera was centered around one particular water pump. Even so, there were those who disputed his theory and clung to the prevailing diagnosis: “miasma!” they cried. “It’s everywhere and nowhere!” John Snow was very unpopular with many in the establishment. Among the self-declared experts.

But Snow was of course able to prove his theory that cholera spread via water contaminated with sewage (the Broad St well that fed the water pump had been dug within feet of a cesspit).

It turned out that the thing that you could do nothing about – the miasma – wasn’t the cause after all. Instead the cause was something you could identify very clearly using careful analysis and then – most importantly – you could do something about it. To stop it happening. The secret to eliminating cholera lay in ensuring clean water supplies.

This week we’re all tripping up over articles (some from respectably left wing journalists) decrying antisemitism on the Left. And statements from Labour MPs & other left wing figures stating that there is “no place in our party for antisemitism”.

Yet somehow the disease of antisemitism has got into Labour. None of the leadership, the MPs, the journalists, or the other people newly associated with the party seem able to locate the causes, the structure and the nature of this antisemitism. And certainly none seem able to offer a way to stop it.

It seems that there are no groups, no organisations, no themes, no articles, no demonstrations, no campaigns and no discourses that could possibly have been contributory factors. There are no individuals either, save for the couple that went way too far and did daft things like mention big noses. And no one can possibly be suggesting that if we bury those individuals in quick lime then the problem will go away, can they?

“Miasma!” we all cry.

Who will save us from this miasma of left wing antisemitism?”

Perhaps we need a John Snow. Someone prepared to look for and then disseminate the empirical evidence. Perhaps there are some water pumps. Perhaps there might also be some names of those operating the pumps. Perhaps there may be something about the left wing water supply? Perhaps we need a dot map.

Who will be the John Snow of our moment?