research / science

Casting Doubts

Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie? 
Your impudence protects you sairly; 
canna say but ye strunt rarely, 
Owre gauze and lace; 
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely 
On sic a place. 

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner, 
Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner, 
How daur ye set your fit upon her- 
Sae fine a lady? 
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner 
On some poor body.

Robert Burns

I’ve been reading Laurie Garrett’s A Coming Plague at bedtime. Last night was the chapter on cities, and their interconnection with epidemics from the dawn of history. I’ve read enough history, and historical fiction (good and bad!) to know intuitively something she discusses as a possible reason that medieval Europe was so blighted and blasted with disease. The people of the time actively feared bathing, and didn’t do it. Also, they were crawling, literally, with fleas, lice, and all manner of bloodsucking beasties.


At least the insects are getting a living out of their biting.

I’ve written here on the blog before about the backhanded wit of John Donne’s Flea, and above I’ve put a few lines of Robbie Burns’ To a Louse. The presence is the lowest of humor, but a grave matter then, before the germ theory was understood. Reading about the death rates gives a shocking sense of how safe we are, how clean…

But then I find disturbing errors in the book I am reading. Cholera, a disease caused by fecal contamination of water supplies, struck New York City in 1832, claiming 500,000 lives, Garrett claims. However, by other accounts, the population of New York City was about 250,000 in that era. The Population History of New York City by Ira Rosenwaike states that the death toll rose above 40 in every 1000 people, a shocking number in itself, but a total of  3215 deaths that year. Why would Garrett so grossly exaggerate the death toll? It can’t have been that difficult to determine the numbers, I found in a few moments searching a large number of sources, the epidemic having been a terrible experience that led to widespread urban reform, and thus much written-about.

This is why, whether I’m reading for pleasure, or research, I try never to rely on only one source. I’m not sure I’ll finish A Coming Plague, which is a shame, it is a fascinating topic, and most of her work seems to be sound. But little cracks lead to bigger ones, and soon the pot not only won’t hold water, but cuts the hands holding it.

Now, I’m off to take a long hot shower. Reading about all that filth and insect infestation has me wanting one badly!


6 thoughts on “Casting Doubts

  1. The only excuse I can see for inflating the numbers that modern readers wouldn’t even consider 3,200 deaths a significant thing…
    But the 40 deaths per thousand figure would have probably have told the story well enough


  2. I suspect the “reason” is to make it “seem relevant” to Moderns. Most people have no concept of how fragile our modern medical system really is. Here in the Metro Indy area, deaths are about 50-100/day. (SWAG based on a glance at the Indy Star obituary pages.) The Metro area (8 counties) has a population of about 1.75-2 Million. An equivalent rate would be 70-80 *thousand* here. Of course, the system would collapse long before it got anywhere near those figures. In addition, there is the fact that sheer numbers, makes the death count only marginally reliable.
    Anyone reading accounts of plagues, etc., recognizes that once the system is overwhelmed, burial is done in _Mass_ graves, with no time to even attempt counting bodies. IIRC, the census admits that it “is impossible (even in modern times) to get an accurate count.” Too many were unable/unwilling to admit they lived there. The 1832 NYC pop was more likely close to 300,000, as people accepted density we wouldn’t today. I may be wrong, but there would have been large numbers that didn’t want to admit they were present in NYC. Examples being, escaped slaves, ship deserters, etc., as well as transients from other countries. There would also have been immigrants in “sweat shops,” whose owners wouldn’t want numbers known (workers/dead).
    OTOH, I agree that 500K is grossly large. In Medieval Europe, populations stayed fairly steady, as travel would have been difficult (relatively). In any case, the real lesson is that civilization is actually pretty fragile. Even well off families, might have 10 children, and see 3-4 reach adulthood. Poor families being on the higher end of children, and lower survival numbers. I’ve seen comments that children weren’t named until about 1-2 YO. City folk would have done somewhat better, but how much? ^0^.


  3. Pingback: Biases and Assumptions | madgeniusclub

  4. Of course, the reason that early moderns feared bathing (unlike Romans, medievals, etc.) is that the water supply got really really bad in a lot of towns and cities, and spread things like cholera (and malaria, wherever the mosquitoes were bad, spread a fear of fresh air). Wherever water supplies remained good and sweet and plentiful, people tended to maintain personal cleanliness.


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