The History of Science

Microscopes, Social Statistics and Cholera

      Cholera has killed millions of people since it emerged out of the filthy water and living conditions of Calcutta India in the early 1800ís.  Since then, there have been a total of eight cholera pandemics.  A cholera pandemic is a cholera epidemic that can last many years or even a few decades at a time, and that spreads to many countries and across continents and oceans.  The first cholera pandemic of 1817-1823 spread from India to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead in its wake.  The recent cholera epidemic in Pohnpei, which was part of the eighth and current pandemic, added some more sad numbers to the tragic statistics of cholera.  In this year, since January there have been cholera outbreaks in Peru, southern Africa and the Marshall Islands.

      While the number of cholera deaths in recent pandemics has still been high with many tens of thousands dying, the numbers are nonetheless considerably lower than the pandemics of the 1800ís when many hundreds of thousands of people would die.  This decrease in the number of cholera deaths is due to the forward march of the biological and social sciences that allowed us to understand, control and treat cholera.

      Two specific trends in the biological and social sciences led to our current knowledge of bacterial and viral diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and AIDS.  These two trends were the development of the microscope that led to a microbiological view of living things, and the development of social statistics that allowed us to see and quantify many types of social patterns.  The emergence of microbiology and the gathering of social statistics both occurred in the 1800ís and are examples of the saying that necessity is the mother of invention.  The need to understand, control and treat diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis and the need to control infections of surgical wounds led to new medical ideas and technology.

      The first truly effective microscopes were made by Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the 1660ís. Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch cloth merchant whose hobby was grinding magnifying lenses so he could see the very small weave of linen cloth.  He allowed us to view the microscopic biological world of cells, bacteria and viruses.  But people are slow to accept new ideas and this was the case with accepting the view that diseases were caused by microorganisms.  Up until the mid 1800ís the western medical establishment supported the miasmatic theory of illness that held that sicknesses were caused by vapors in the air.  But all of that changed during what is referred to as the Golden Age of Microbiology from 1850-1920 that saw scientists such as John Snow, Louis Pasteur, John Lister, Filippo Pacini and Robert Koch.

    The 1800ís also saw the beginning of the large-scale and systematic collection of social statistics by individuals and governments that led to the modern social sciences such as sociology and economics.  Emile Durkheim, considered one of the fathers of sociology, used social statistics to do research on suicide in France.  Both of these new trends, microbiology and social statistics, converged in 1854 when cholera hit London England.  An English doctor named John Snow, influenced by the newly emerging microbiology and utilizing social statistics (death certificates), traced the spread of cholera in one area of London to the now infamous Broad Street water pump, thereby pointing to sewage-contaminated water as a carrier of something that caused cholera. The Italian doctor Filippo Pacini was the first to discover the cholera bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) in 1854 when cholera hit Florence, but his discovery was ignored by the Italian medical community which still subscribed to the miasmatic theory of illness.  It wasnít until 1883 that the cholera bacteria was discovered again independently by the German physician Robert Koch.  By this time the western medical establishment was ready to accept the fact that microorganisms did indeed cause illnesses such as cholera.

      Here in Pohnpei and the neighboring Marshall Islands we recently learned the hard way about the role that microorganisms play in the spread of cholera and the ways in which our individual and social behavior can either spread or prevent it.  We also learned the value of social statistics in determining the origin and progress of the disease.  And lastly, in general, we learned the value of education in the biological and social sciences.

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