“Drains don’t make heroes,” I thundered in a piece about polio in a recent issue of Prospect. Apparently, I was wrong. It’s just that they don’t make heroes very quickly. This I learned at the truly fascinating new exhibition on Dirt at the Wellcome Collection, one of Prospect‘s cultural picks for this month. On the wall of a whole room related to London’s troubled relationship with its drains, there’s a quote from an 1860 edition of Farmers’ Magazine: “If the money value of our sewers could be shown to the British farmer in bright and glittering heaps of sovereigns, he would grasp at the enormous wealth.”
This enthusiasm will be little consolation to John Snow, a demigod in my demi-monde of epidemiology. Snow essentially invented outbreak epidemiology, carefully plotting the 500 or so cholera deaths in Soho in 1854 on a map, and tracing its source to a water pump in Broad Street. The Great and the Good of British science were impatient with his contention that bad water, rather than a “miasma” of bad air, was responsible for spreading disease; Snow’s leap of imagination predated the germ theory of disease by seven years. The Grand Old Men continued to diss Snow even after he famously ripped the handle off the offending pump, ending the cholera outbreak among those few people who hadn’t already fled the area.
There’s a fair bit of faecal matter in the Dirt exhibition, including a huge, Le Corbusier-style block sculpted by India’s scavengers out of the human waste they process. But it goes way beyond that, delving in to the social and cultural connotations of cleanliness and contamination. From Dust to Dust and all that… I was particularly enchanted by a broom left standing casually in a corner as if forgotten in some hasty, last-minute clean-up. On closer inspection, its diamond, pearl and opal inlays provide a quiet comment on the gems that earth and grit yield up. Had I an ounce of domesticity in my own make-up, I’d have been tempted to grab it to sweep up a delicate filigree carpet laid out on the bare floorboards and composed of nothing more than household dust.
I somehow got roped in to writing a chapter for the though-I-say-it-myself rather beautiful book…