Science history: the battle to end the Great Stink


Early efforts to defeat cholera in London backfired badly. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


An 1858 Punch cartoon depicting the Thames, not inaccurately, as a source of terrible diseases for Londoners.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Today we might regard a story about “The Great Stink” as possibly the title of a new Adam Sandler movie, but in fact it refers to a terrifying period in British history, which led to the construction of one of the wonders of the industrial world.

The discovery of cholera bacteria is credited to German bacteriologist Robert Koch, who in 1883 independently identified Vibrio cholerae, during an outbreak in Egypt.

The genus name refers to the organism appearing to vibrate when moving.

The British City of Westminster’s online archives contains an article titled Cholera and the Thames. It says the rapid modernisation from the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century propelled the spread of the disease from its “ancient homeland around the Ganges River”.

The disease hit Britain in October 1831, reaching London in 1832, with subsequent large outbreaks in 1841,1854 and 1866.

Before Koch’s 1883 discovery, the disease was thought to have been transmitted by miasma, or “bad air”.

In Britain, and London in particular, after the deaths of tens of thousands, acts were passed to rid city streets of open sewers and cesspits. The solution appeared simple: run all the waste disposal channels directly into the Thames River.

The result of this, during an exceptionally hot summer, was the Great Stink of 1858.

Because much of London took its water from the river, the cholera problem only worsened. Enter John Snow. No, not that Jon Snow. He’s in Game of Thrones, and spells his first name differently.

Our John Snow was born on 15 March 1813, in York, England. An article on his life, published by the University of California at Los Angeles Field School of Public Health, Department of Epidemiology, says he was a physician in London who spent decades studying cholera “in a systematic way”.

Another article, published by the Boston University School of Public Health, titled The Evolution of Epidemiologic Thinking, says Snow began examining cholera victims and found that their initial symptoms were always related to the gastrointestinal tract.

He reasoned that if cholera was spread by bad air, it should cause pulmonary symptoms, but since the symptoms were gut-based, perhaps it was transmitted by water or food consumption.

His evidence reportedly included 70 workers in a local brewery who only drank beer and all survived.

In August 1849, Snow published a paper titled On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, in which he presented his theory that the disease was acquired by ingestion of contaminated water. It was largely rejected.

A 2016 Guardian article, part of its Story of cities series, laments that “His arguments largely dismissed, Dr Snow died in 1858 at the height of the Great Stink, a "miasmatic" event that helped prove his point by failing to unleash a new outbreak of disease – if miasma were deadly, the Great Stink surely would have been.”

In 1855, Parliament created the Metropolitan Board of Works, tasked with cleaning up the Thames. Joseph Bazalgette was appointed chief engineer.

He was born in London on 28 March 1819 and began his career as a railway engineer, gaining experience in land drainage and reclamation.

By 1855 he had already spent several years drawing up plans for a new sanitation system that would include waste disposal, land reclamation from the Thames mud flats, and a clean water supply. Now he was ready to go to work.

His scheme involved a network of main sewers, running parallel to the river, which would intercept both surface water and waste, conducting them to outfalls on the northern and southern sides of the Thames, from where it would flow more easily out to sea. Pumping stations were built to raise up sewage from low-lying areas and discharge it onwards to the outfalls.

The plan also featured embankments along the Thames, designed to carry tunnels (including the underground railway), and also to help cleanse the river by narrowing and strengthening its flow through the city’s centre. It replaced 265 kilometres of old sewers, and added 1700 kilometres of new ones.

In 2003, Bazalgette’s feat was chosen by the British Broadcasting Corporation for insclusion in a documentary series called Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.

The engineer who ensured the Big Stink would never happen again died, in London, in 1891. During his life he fathered 11 children. Before she wed, bore them all and became Lady Bazalgette, his wife went by the not entirely inappropriate name of Maria Kough.

Explore #Cholera
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1444283/pdf/bmjcred00486-0049.pdf
  2. https://www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-westminster/
  3. https://awoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/Jon_Snow
  4. https://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/fatherofepidemiology.html
  5. http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/EP/EP713_History/EP713_History6.html
  6. https://www.nature.com/articles/495169a
  7. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/04/story-cities-14-london-great-stink-river-thames-joseph-bazalgette-sewage-system
  8. https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/engineering-technology/how-london-got-its-victorian-sewers
  9. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0379142/
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