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Fascinatingly Filthy: How Bad Science Saved Lives in Victorian London

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Wellcome Trust, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

If you’re a fan of science or history, you know that many of the most important discoveries in medicine were made due to wild speculation, lazy lab techs, or plain old accidents. And plenty of theories of healing were so wrong as to have actually been responsible for deaths, not cures. 

But every once in a while, humans of the past got lucky: Even though their science was completely wrong, the theory driving it saved lives anyway. Such is the case with “miasma,” a concept popular throughout the mid-1800s with laypeople, doctors, and public-health advocates.  

“The prevailing view was that ‘miasma’—foul smell, particularly the stench of rotting matter—was the cause of disease. It was an appealing idea—not least because the slums, where epidemics raged, stank,” says Lee Jackson, author of Dirty Old London, which recently came out in paperback. 

Mental_floss spoke to Jackson about how attempts to clean up the unbelievably filthy city in the 19th century—when the population increased tremendously—led to major improvements in both public and personal health that had a lasting legacy around the world. And it all happened despite the fact they didn’t have the science right. 

THE STENCH OF DISEASE

The true cause of disease—germs, or pathogens—wasn’t verified until Louis Pasteur conducted his experiments of the 1860s (though some scientists had proposed the idea much earlier), and it was another decade before the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery, leprosy, diphtheria, and other illnesses were identified and understood.

The Victorians made the classic error that correlation equals causation. Slums smell, due to poor sanitation, piles of garbage stacking up, and the lack of bathing and clothes-washing facilities; people in slums die of epidemics at a faster rate; ergo, stench causes disease.

And boy, did London stink. 

Let’s start with the dead bodies, which were buried in churchyards, most of them in the middle of neighborhoods. “Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst tombstones; smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood,” Jackson writes in Dirty Old London.  

As the bodies, dead from old age or disease, rotted, pathogens leaked into the water table, sometimes making their way to nearby wells. But since germ theory wasn’t understood, it was the stench of the near-surface bodies that got the attention.

“London’s small churchyards were so ridiculously full, that decaying corpses were near to the top soil; ‘graveyard gases’ were a familiar aroma. In fact, gases from corpses are relatively harmless,” Jackson says. Large, open, park-like cemeteries were soon built on the outskirts of the city, relieving “miasma” and live bacteria from close proximity to drinking water. 

Sewage was another disease vector that seems obvious to the modern person, but to the people of the past, it was the gag-worthy smells wafting from privies that caused disease. In poor areas, up to 15 families—whole tenements—might be sharing one overflowing shack. Slumlords liked to cut corners by refusing to have the “night-soil men” come by for a pick-up; these workers would shovel the waste into buckets and haul it out to farms to be used as fertilizer, and they (understandably!) didn’t work for free. 

But sewage wasn't just a problem for those actually using the privies; the liquid that leaked into the water table from the privies also spread disease. Even in middle-class homes, solid waste accumulated in basement cesspools that slowly leaked liquid wastes into wells just feet away. 

“The building of a unified network of sewers in the 1850s–'70s undoubtedly saved London from further epidemics of cholera and typhoid. It was done on grounds of ‘miasma’ but, regardless, the consequences were very positive,” Jackson says. 

CLEANING UP THE CITY

Public toilets were also finally built in the latter part of the 1800s, which cut down on street-stink—and also allowed women to have more freedom. Because only the poorest women and prostitutes peed in public (usually crouching over sewer grates to do so), lack of public facilities meant working-class women were often in a bind. These women “didn’t go out, or didn’t go’” according to Jackson’s research. “Navigating the city, therefore, required some level of planning, depending on your social class and whether you considered yourself ‘respectable’” Jackson says. (Like today, the bathrooms of shops or restaurants were generally only available to those making a purchase.)

Providing a place to pee also had the positive effect of cutting down on public urination by men. In some places the odor of urine, both fresh and old, was so intense that complaints to local councils were constant from the people who lived nearby. In some cases, the urine even degraded structures over time. Smart property owners installed “urine deflectors” on the sides of their buildings—if you were to aim your stream there, it would get bounced back onto your shoes. 

Public bathhouses—which often included spaces to wash and even dry laundry—also proved to be a boon to public health. It wasn't just about keeping bodies cleaner; for the poorest people in the city of London, water was only available from a public pump, and washing clothes and linens was often difficult-to-impossible. A place that allowed for washing of both body and textiles meant that diseases spread by fleas (such as typhus) were reduced. Bonus: Everyone smelled a bit better too.

Victorians went after that which stank—and public health improved. As Ruth Goodman writes in her book, How to Be a Victorian, “Housework was valuable in preserving health whichever theory you ascribed to. So too was community cleanliness: germs could be fought effectively as miasmas by good town management of waste, by regular street cleaning, by prosecuting those who dumped waste in public areas. Personal hygiene also had value with both germ and miasma theories of disease.” 

The Victorian era is now known as a great era of sanitation in Great Britain, with lasting changes and public infrastructure that still exists today. In a sense, it matters little that it was all based on something that didn’t exist.

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Can You Really Lose Weight by Pooping? It Depends on What You Eat
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If you’re obsessed with either your scale or your bowel movements, you’ve probably wondered: How much of my weight is just poop? A teenage cousin of mine once spent an entire restaurant dinner arguing that he could lose up to 3 pounds if you just gave him a few minutes to sit on the toilet. As you might imagine, he was wrong. But not by that much, according to Thrillist, a site that’s been truly dominating the poop science beat lately.

You can indeed see the effects of a truly satisfying bowel movement reflected on your bathroom scale. (Wash your hands first, please.) But how much your feces weigh depends heavily on your diet. The more fiber you eat, the heavier your poop. Unfortunately, even the most impressive fecal achievement won't tip the scales much.

In 1992, researchers studying the effect of fiber intake on colon cancer risk wrote that the daily movements of poopers across the world could vary anywhere from 2.5 ounces to 1 pound. In their sample of 220 Brits, the median daily poop weighed around 3.7 ounces. A dietary intake of around 18 grams of dietary fiber a day typically resulted in a 5.3-ounce turd, which the researchers say is enough to lower the risk of bowel cancer.

A Western diet probably isn’t going to help you achieve your poop potential, mass-wise. According to one estimate, industrialized populations only eat about 15 grams of fiber per day thanks to processed foods. (Aside from ruining your bragging rights for biggest poop, this also wreaks havoc on your microbiome.) That's why those British poops observed in the study didn't even come close to 1 pound.

Poop isn’t the only thing passing through your digestive tract that has some volume to it. Surprisingly, your fabulous flatulence can be quantified, too, and it doesn’t even take a crazy-sensitive machine to do so. In a 1991 study, volunteers plied with baked beans were hooked up to plastic fart-capturing bags using rectal catheters. The researchers found that the average person farts around 24 ounces of gas a day. The average fart involved around 3 ounces of gas.

This doesn’t mean that either pooping or farting is a solid weight-loss strategy. If you’re hoping to slim down, losing a pound of poop won’t improve the way your jeans fit. Certainly your 24 ounces of gas won't. But to satisfy pure scientific curiosity, sure, break out that scale before and after you do your business. At least you'll be able to see if your fiber intake is up to snuff.

[h/t Thrillist]

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Why You Get Diarrhea When You're Hungover
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If your hangover mornings involve a lot of time sitting on the toilet, you're not alone. In addition to making you puke your guts out, drinking too much can also give you massive diarrhea the next day. Why? Thrillist talked to a gastroenterologist about the hangover poops, and found that it's a pretty common phenomenon, one caused by a combination of unusually fast-moving digestion.

When you drink, Urvish Shah told the site, alcohol increases what's called gut motility, the contractions that move food along your gastrointestinal tract. Combine this with the fact that booze inhibits vasopressin—the hormone that regulates water retention and prevents your kidneys from immediately dumping whatever liquid you drink into your bladder—and suddenly your guts have become a full-blown water slide.

All those cocktails take a fast-paced thrill ride down to your colon, where your gut bacteria throw a feast. The result is a bunch of gas and diarrhea you don't usually get when food and water are passing through your system a little more slowly. And because it's all rushing through you so fast, the colon isn't absorbing as much liquid as usual, giving you even more watery poops. If you haven't eaten, the extra acidity in your stomach from the booze can also irritate your stomach lining, causing—you guessed it—more diarrhea.

The more concentrated form of alcohol you drink, the worse it's going to be. If you really want to stay out of the bathroom the morning after that party, go ahead and take it easy on the shots. Because beer is so high in carbohydrates, though, Thrillist warns that that will cause gas and poop problems too as the bacteria in your gut start going to town on the undigested carbs that make it to your colon.

All in all, the only way to avoid a post-alcohol poop is to just stop drinking quite as much. Sorry, folks. If you want to rule Saturday night, you'll have to deal with the Sunday morning runs.

[h/t Thrillist]

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