Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cartographies of Life and Death at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The last two weeks have been excellent.  After a couple of years conference-free, I've enjoyed first a mini-conference at RBG with Doreen Massey; and second another mini-conference that ended a couple of hours ago at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.  The name of the school might seem a bit quaint to some but it reflects a time when British colonial interests overseas were contending with some fierce diseases.  Not the least of which was cholera.

Spurred on by one of the presenters I took the opportunity during today's lunch break to walk from the conference location, passing first through the lobby where an exhibit features maps and books from archives as well as art inspired by John Snow.  There are a couple of animated digital maps as well, one of which uses choropleth classifications to depict outbreaks in Africa; and another of which plots occurrences of cholera through time on Snow's original 1854 map base, with a 'central tendency' point that follows cholera cases day by day.

Walking out onto the street wet from that morning's rain (which I'd been pulled up to that morning by an updraft coming from the Senate House Library behind me) I went straight ahead and then left, entering almost immediately the Royal Holloway Bedford Square (which I discovered on the way back has an architectural bookstore).  After arriving at Oxford Street I had to check a map to figure out how to get to Soho Square, just beyond which lie the streets where Snow lived and made observations on cholera so long ago.

This was really my first time going to Soho, and I followed a satisfyingly narrow back street over to Dean Street, and from there it was a short jaunt into a maze of streets with record and art stores and finally to the John Snow pub.  I had just joined the John Snow society too, and I shortly found the famous pump, which is a replica of the original.  Broad Street from Snow's day has been changed to Broadview Street.  There is a 'water bar' set up there (this was the last day), where a person could sample different kinds of water if they were so inclined.

The walk back was brisk, just in time to catch Tom Koch's talk on disease mapping.  He has a book out by that name with the University of Chicago Press.  Tom had the place livened up in no time as he cracked jokes about Sinclair Lewis and The Lone Ranger.  A fellow Canadian from B.C., we had a good chat at the break a bit later on.  He believes that science is never done by one man alone, despite the aura that goes with Snow.  One question from the audience challenged this view, pointing out that Snow was a unique man, going so far as to drink only distilled water (on top of being strictly tea-total).

The debates were wide-ranging and there was a lot of medical terminology.  In large part the conference was about cholera.  One of the best talks was by Christopher Hamlin from Notre Dame.  He is a historian of science who talks about Kuhn, paradigms, and ontologies of disease in a very compelling way.  This is quite relevant to how one views the spread and transmission of ideas; the latter may sometimes operate like viral outbreaks.  These are the memes that Dennett had been discussing in his talk (see previous blog post).

All of this is my idea of fun.  For more information click here.

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