Disease Detectives


Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum
Water Quality - Pollutant Sources and Impacts

As little as 150 years ago, it was not known that diseases originated in a microbiological world and people were unaware of the dangers of contaminated drinking water. Epidemic diseases such as cholera were thought to be a consequence of living in sinful ways, as many of those affected lived ‘dissolute … and filth ridden lives.’ Scientists of the time believed that cholera was caused by an “influence in the atmosphere”, a miasma or poison contracted by those who were weakened by participating in certain behaviors. Those who lived a clean and upright life would not be affected.

In 1854, an outbreak of cholera occurred in London, England. A doctor named John Snow had been promoting a new theory of waterborne disease transmission, but his warnings were ignored by officials. Through a masterful and scientific bit of detective work, Dr. Snow eventually determined that the source of the 1854 epidemic was a drinking water pump that had been contaminated by a broken sewer pipe that passed close by. When he showed the results of his detective work to local officials, they took action immediately to eliminate the source of the problem. How do you think that they accomplished this?

Today, disease detectives are called epidemiologists and they are a very important part of the public health profession.


Deaths Dispensary

The origin of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 was traced to a contaminated drinking water pump.


Early thinking about cholera

More on pioneer disease detective, John Snow

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