Death was everywhere for the Victorians, but it was never commonplace

Death’s great paradox is its inconstant constancy. Its forms and rituals change from generation to generation. In our own era, antibiotics have reduced the chance of a fatal infection, and average life expectancy has risen to our eighties. Direct cremation means we can even ship Auntie Maudie, when her time comes, to the crematorium sight unseen and have her ashes returned via DHL. Our existential encounter with death in society is muted to a murmur. Unlike the Irish and their open-coffin wakes, the English almost never now see a corpse. So it is hard to imagine how our great-great-grandparents lived in a world where fatal fevers struck at random and

Why has medicine been so slow to improve over the centuries?

Medicine was founded by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. Doctors continued to study the Hippocratic texts into the 19th century, and many of the therapies, such as bleeding, purgatives and enemas, continued to be practised into the 20th. The standard Hippocratic account of disease was that it resulted from an imbalance of humours within the body. But this failed to explain how some diseases spread through populations at particular times. Among the earliest Hippocratic texts, Epidemics and On Airs, Waters, Places sought to explain this phenomenon. In 1850 the London Epidemiological Society was formed. The governing assumption of most of its members was exactly the same as those of

Africa’s invisible epidemics

Africa   ‘Ah, Africa,’ the French scientist sighed contentedly. This was 1995 and all around us was an Ebola epidemic ravaging Kikwit, a village in what they now call the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘No lawyers to sue us!’ I had just asked him why doctors in the local hospital ward had shown me Ebola victims, lying in beds next to patients suffering milder diseases. In the Kikwit outbreak, the hemorrhagic fever killed eight out of ten people infected — 245 in all. People became sick after kissing and hugging the bodies of their loved ones at their funerals. Local doctors told me that dysentery routinely claimed more Kikwit children’s