Category Archives: public health

Now wash your hands

My colleague Vicky is right. Spring is finally here. And yet… winter drags on, as the lingering winter vomiting disease continues to make its presence felt.

A family of viruses – known as the noroviruses – thrive in crowded conditions and are especially fond of schools, where pupils then take bugs home. An unpleasant scenario my young daughter and I played out a few days ago.

Avoiding it is partly down to luck. But one major defence is the good old public health maxim – ‘wash your hands after you’ve been’. While such basic hygiene seems obvious, there was a time we barely used to bother.

Public health poster from the 1950s. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, first highlighted the life-saving potential of hand-washing in 1847.  Like other champions of medical hygiene, such as Joseph Lister, he was initially ridiculed. Only after the acceptance of germ theory were such good practices really followed.

Hygienic habits amongst the public were also slow to catch on. Access to clean water was limited in 19th century Britain and many homes didn’t have sinks, let alone bathrooms.

The 'Optimus' water closet. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Lavatories, like the one above, were reserved for wealthier backsides. Public toilets, when they arrived, cost money. Most people relied on unhygienic communal toilets which had to service many households. And not without reason were the Victorian masses called ‘the great unwashed’. Effective soap was a luxury until well into the 20th century.

We have examples of such products in one our smellier store cupboards. Cakes of soap still queasily fragrant nearly a century after they were made.

Cakes of soap

Cakes of soap (Stewart Emmens)

In time, good hygiene was seen as a public duty, especially in regard to washing hands. But people do need reminding.

Public health stickers

Public health stickers (Stewart Emmens)

These stickers are from the mid 20th century and were to be placed in staff toilets, especially those used by people preparing food. Because then, as now, you didn’t really want any little ‘hidden extras’ with your pie and chips.

Monster soup

Curatorial work can be pretty desk-bound, so opportunities to get your hands dirty are not to be missed. I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to venture into London’s Victorian sewers. Hey – we’ve all got to dream…

Off on a jolly in the London sewers

Off on a jolly in the London sewers

Back in the 1800′s London’s sanitation was terrible, as this satirical engraving of ”Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water”, illustrates:

'Monster Soup', 1828.

'Monster Soup', 1828. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It was a public health disaster, that claimed numerous lives. London’s sewage system, although it’s still being modernised, is essentially a Victorian construction engineered by Joseph Bazalgette to deal with the daily excretions of millions of Londoners.

Built with the slightest of gradients, the sewers flow from west to east London where a number of pumping stations raise up the contents again, before allowing it to travel onwards. One of these is Abbey Mills Pumping Station, near Stratford, which draws up the flow 40 feet into the raised Northern Outfall sewer – my glamorous destination for the day.

Bazalgette's Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Stratford, London, 1868.

Bazalgette's Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Stratford, London, 1868. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

From the outside, the Northern Outfall looks like a disused railway embankment. It bridges roads. It forms a cycle path.

Once clad in disposable bodysuit, gloves, waders and hardhat, we entered via a painfully vertical ladder. The first surprise was the smell – or rather the lack of it. A slight ammonia whiff, but not that unpleasant.

Me and my fellow travellers were accompanied by guides, similarly clad but armed with beeping gas monitors. Their torches exposing a world of arched brickwork, sluice gates and rounded tunnels disappearing off into the gloom. And yes, the opaque watery soup flecked with brown that we were wading through. But closer inspection of the shingly mud banked against the walls revealed unexpected things – a toy car, a metal spoon, part of a mobile phone. Evidence that the sewers also deal with what goes down London’s street drains.

Apart from some alarming collections of ‘matter’ trapped in brick crevices and around ladder rungs, it looks pretty good up there – considering its age. And, after an extended wander and one near tumble (it happens – trip to A & E advisable), we surfaced. Impressed with Bazalgette’s monumental handiwork, we headed for a more low key public health experience – the long hot shower.