Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cholera: The Biography, by Christopher Hamlin

This book is an attempt on the part of the author to create a comprehensive history of cholera from the first recognized outbreaks of 1817 to the modern day where it continues to linger in less industrialized countries. I want to say that this book is an attempt at a deconstruction because it veers away from the standard cholera narrative which idolizes John Snow and his research around the Broad Street Pump. Hamlin by contrast depicts Snow’s efforts as one of many competing attempts to define what exactly the cause of cholera was, as well as part of a larger movement for clean water. Hamlin also mentions Robert Koch, the Prussian scientist credited with identifying the bacteria that causes cholera, however Koch’s work seems undermined in this particular text because of more recent research that shows Vibro cholerae, the bacteria generally credited with causing cholera, is more susceptible to mutation than originally thought. However, Hamlin’s conclusions seem almost to be that nothing can truly be understood which seems fatalistic at best.

In his chronicle of cholera research, Hamlin depicts a stumbling, staggering process in which science advances in fits and starts with only gradual progress. The result is a rather confused narrative that seems to jump about from topic to topic in a mostly disorganized manner. It may be that because I read this book a bit at a time I was left rather confused because I kept picking it up and putting it down, but the overall disorganization of his text seemed rather consistent through the book. I seriously doubt that was a stylistic choice as this is an academic text, and reflects rather poorly on the author in my opinion. Hamlin does follow the attempts to define cholera, beginning in the early nineteenth century where cholera goes from a seasonal, non-contagious, and largely survivable affliction of diarrhea to a highly contagious and largely fatal disease; at least according to contemporary reports. Hamlin does call into question the fatality of cholera considering several reports were highly inflated and the number of dead rounded to the nearest thousand. However there are also confirmed reports with at least a fifty percent mortality. It seems like Hamlin is trying to have it both ways in his argument, which brings the whole thesis into question.

As I said, Hamlin depicts the scientific research into cholera as a stumbling process where scientists aren’t always sure what they’re looking for, which you get the impression he sees as a defect. Yet that’s the whole benefit of the scientific method. We’re never entirely sure about anything. Scientists can create entire theories around existing evidence and experimentation which may answer our questions about life, the universe, and everything, but science also takes into consideration that new evidence may turn up which will totally redefine our understanding of the universe. The very nature of a scientist is to be unsure about anything and ultimately we’re hazarding a best guess. Of course, this best guess may be backed up by boatloads of evidence, but there can always be more evidence to consider. It seems like Hamlin is accusing science of being flawed because it’s not one hundred percent certain about everything all the time and often gets things wrong.

From a more cultural perspective, this book also seems to be significantly lacking. Hamlin makes an effort to explain the cultural significance of cholera as well and how it became a major fear of popular consciousness. However, very little of the text seems dedicated to an analysis of the cultural aspect. There is mention that it gets tied to sanitary reform movements (which considering its vector of infection is certainly valid) as well as the early attempts by governments to try and do something to combat cholera, even if they weren’t sure what that something would be. There was also a struggle among nations to prevent the spread of cholera through quarantines, which received some resistance due to their hampering of trade. However any cultural analysis takes a definite backseat to the scientific analysis. In the end, cholera becomes a social stigmata, implying uncleanliness and a primitive inability to maintain basic hygiene, resulting in a hesitation to even announce an outbreak of cholera. However, as the industrializing world still faces challenges in providing clean water supplies, cholera remains a problem today.

Overall this book is just a mess. I did learn some new things about cholera from it, but the book is highly disorganized and provides a very muddled narrative with very little structure. Hamlin’s almost yet not quite critique of science and its inability to provide the correct answers right away seems petty and ignorant, especially coming from a researcher. I don’t think I’d recommend this book just because it’s such a jumbled mess.

- Kalpar   

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