13. The bad smell wasn’t just unpleasant – according to the doctors of the time, it was also responsible for killer typhoid outbreaks
In the years before the Big Stink, London had been hit by 3 major cholera outbreaks. The first, in 1831-32 killed in excess of 6,000 Londoners. A second outbreak hit between 1848-49, claiming more than 14,000 lives this time. And then again in 1853, a third outbreak of cholera led to 10,000 lives across the city. At the time, many experts blamed bad air for spreading the deadly disease. Even when Dr John Snow argued that dirty water, not dirty air, spread cholera, the âmiasma theory’ was the dominant belief.
So strongly did many leading scientists and politicians believe in the miasma theory that this was one the main reasons for the closing of London’s many cesspits in the 1830s and 1840s. It was hoped that washing the smell out of residential quarters would reduce the risk of further outbreaks of cholera. Instead, it made things worse. Ultimately, however, the Big Stink proved Dr Snow was right in his belief that drinking dirty water was to blame for the spread of cholera. After all, if bad air caused disease, surely Londoners would have been dying at an unprecedented rate in the 1850s. Sadly, Dr Snow died in 1858, at the height of the Great Stink, and so didn’t live to see his ideas become accepted by his peers.