The medical detective by Sandra Hempel

The medical detective by Sandra Hempel – John Snow, cholera, and the mystery of the Broad Street pump is meant to be a biography of John Snow. It was published also by the University of California Press, making me assume that the work is academic. It’s not, but more suitable for mass market. Of course this is not a bad thing at all, as the topic and the development of epidemiology are fascinating. The reason I gave it 4 stars is that she digresses from the subject many times, giving all sorts of quotes and details about other people. It was interesting at first, but by the end of the book it started to annoy me. I would read other books by her.

The medical detective by Sandra Hempel

The first case of cholera came to England in 1831, from Asia. It killed millions of Europeans. At that time most doctors and nurses, including the well known Florence Nightingale, believed that diseases are spread through miasma. The disease would be spread to the British shores again and again in the next decades.

John Snow came from a poor family, had a strong ethic, was vegetarian, and avoided alcohol. His story is truly fascinating and I just wish Hempel would have given more details about him and his family and less faffing on others. Snow struggled to get his voice heard when he was assessing something so incredible at that time, that drinking water was killing people.

He had a fascinating career and tended to Queen Victoria in childbirth, twice, as an anaesthetist. He worked tirelessly to find out why some people were getting cholera and others didn’t. It makes for a fascinating read.

The book also shows how the public was quick to come up with their interpretation. Starting by saying that the government was too quick to act, hence overreacting by imposing quarantine. After that, some conspiracy theories came up. Sadly, it’s all too familiar at this time with people (even the same people) saying at first that the government reacted too strongly to impose a lockdown and in a couple of weeks changing their tune to: “the government is not doing enough and we need stronger measures”. On top of that, today, despite high literacy rates and, theoretically, an understanding of viruses, some people think that they will not catch the virus at church, that 5G can spread the virus, and, if you drink lemon juice you can’t get it either. Huh?! It’s sad that with all our advances, some of us are not too far from the Victorians in understanding the world around them.

The medical detective by Sandra Hempel

Details about the picture: –
My rating: 4/5 Stars
Would I recommend it: yes
Published by: Granta Books
Year it was published: 2007 (first published in 2006)
Format: Paperback
Genre(s): Biography
Pages: 308

About the author: Sandra Hempel is a journalist who focusses on health and social issues. She wrote on medicine in 19th century Britain. Her last book is on 20 devastating epidemic diseases, tracing their history across the world from their first emergence.
Books by Sandra Hempel: The Medical Detective; The Inheritor’s Powder; The Atlas of Disease.
Website & Social Media Links: –

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