(Note: The details for next month’s book and the themed recipe are at the bottom of this post.)
Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month, we read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. The book is about a deadly cholera outbreak in Victorian-era London and the investigation done by Dr. John Snow (no, not the same one, and yes he does know som’thin’) to track down the source of the contagion.
Spoiler alert: the reason that the outbreak was so widespread is because cholera is a waterborne bacteria and had gotten into the Broad Street pump, one of the most popular pumps in town. Germs hadn’t quite been discovered yet, so whenever there was an epidemic, doctors tended to blame either someone’s moral character or station (they weren’t the “right sort” of person), bad smells in the air, or even meteorological conditions.
The book gets its name from a map that John Snow created to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak (and later, to prove his waterborne-contagion theory). He marked all of the deaths and noticed that they were mostly people who had access to the Broad St pump. There were pockets of people who didn’t succumb to the disease, and upon further investigation he found out that either they worked at a place with a private water supply or they drank beer (which was boiled in the brewing process, thus killing off bacteria).
Dr. Snow had the burden of proof because the popular theory of disease was that it was caused by bad smells (miasma). The miasmatists held that smells could make a person sick, but not everyone would get sick from the same smell because each person had a unique constitution thus a unique reaction. Dr. Snow had recently done research into the anesthetic effects of ether and found that he could predict the right amount of ether needed for a person. Since ether affected everyone the same, that conflicted with Miasma Theory, and thus sowed the seeds of doubt in his mind. Years later, when people started dying of cholera, it was his investigation (and perseverence) that led to the removal of the Broad St pump handle (despite the other doctors and committees trying to disprove him).
Another hero of the book was Mr. Whitehead, a local clergyman whose parish was greatly affected by the outbreak. Long story short: he initially thought that the removal of the pump handle was silly, but then after doing his own investigation and seeing Dr. Snow’s maps, he was convinced and reminded of the power of rational thought. (Not something you think about these days when you think of the clergy!)
In the end, the cholera investigation found that there was sufficient evidence that the Broad St pump was the source of the epidemic. It turned out that a baby had gotten cholera (poor thing!) and her mom had dumped the water used to wash her diapers into a cesspool (in the basement) that contaminated the Broad St water supply. Because of the outbreak, London developed a better-engineered sewer system to take the human waste out of the city, and thus made city-living more feasible (and changed history).
I enjoyed this book, even the scenes that painted a gruesome scene of life in Victorian London (cesspools everywhere, overcrowding, infrastructure issues, etc). It was very thorough, although at times it could be a bit redundant. In fact, I thought most of the book could’ve been shortened into a rather long article, like one you would find in the New Yorker. The scariest chapter was the epilogue, where the author basically says that we’re fucked and that if we don’t die of a massive outbreak, the suicidal terrorists will get us because they have no rational self-interest at stake.
This Month’s Recipe: English Trifle
I love trifles, they are one of the easiest desserts to make, and the trick is using homemade custard and a bit of booze. (Obviously it fits the British theme, I don’t know if it’s historically accurate or not.)
- 6 egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 28 oz heavy cream
- 9″ sponge cake or pound cake (I use Sara Lee’s frozen family-size version)
- 1 cup seedless raspberry jam
- 1-2 pints of berries (blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries)
- 1/4 – 1/2 cup rum (or other liquor)
- To make the custard, heat up 20 oz of the heavy cream in a medium pot over medium heat. While this is heating up, beat together the egg yolks and sugar until incorporated. When the cream is hot (not boiling), add it to the yolk mixture while stirring constantly. After the cream is mixed in, add the mixture back to the pot (on low heat) and stir until the custard coats the back of a metal spoon. Set aside to cool.
- Cut the cake into 1″ cubes and divide into three portions. Add the first portion to the bottom of the trifle bowl (or a large glass bowl).
- Sprinkle the cake with 1/3 of your rum. Add 1/3 cup of the jam to the top and try to spread evenly (or just dab it on the cake pieces). Add 1/3 of the fruit on top of the cake. Pour 1/3 of the custard over the fruit. Repeat for the next two layers.
- Whip the last 8 oz of heavy cream on high until you see stiff peaks (don’t overwhip or you will have butter). Add to the top of the trifle and keep refrigerated for 1-2 hours before serving.
Note: If you are serving the trifle the next day, here is a way to make stabilized whipped cream.
Next Month’s Book: Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk
I will post about this book on Sunday, July 28th (and if you’re in the Boston area, we will be meeting on Saturday, July 27th). I’m already getting excited about the themed recipe! See you next time!