In Chapter 21, Jack London falls prey to beliefs of the time that were on their way out. One in particular was that somehow bad smells carried disease. Miasma (bad smells) was still feared as the bearer of disease when in fact unpleasant odors are often merely a product of active bacteria. Still, where the smells occurred often disease soon followed. The diseases and the bacteria that caused it was real, but one could not become ill merely from the smell. Although our understanding of microbes was growing, much advice about staying healthy came from obsolete assumptions.
Curiously, I have family members who insist that one can catch a cold by becoming cold.
Because the people of the abyss were exposed to so much bacteria, their immune systems were probably in much better shape than what many of us have today. Still, imagine a time when receiving a deep cut to the skin was perhaps a real source of fear. Infected cuts in 1902 frequently killed.
Life and death for each of us is an affair of chance. For most in London of 1902 it was one with poor odds. The British people then were much like they are today: strong, capable, imaginative, intelligent, and enterprising, but for the poor, much stood in their way. The frequency of childhood illnesses that killed or crippled was much greater. Malnutrition that could inhibit one’s physical and mental development was a real possibility. Living in an unclean environment brought with it the risks of countless illnesses. Those illnesses or environmental poisoning could leave one permanently damaged and frail. Labor often consisted of such long hours and such repetitive movement that bodies and minds were worn down, contributing to the frequency of accidents in industry.
Here are statistics that Jack London provided of deaths and injuries on the job in Great Britain of the time:
1 of every 1400 workmen is killed annually.
1 of every 2500 workmen is totally disabled.
1 of every 300 workmen is permanently partially disabled.
1 of every 8 workmen is temporarily disabled 3 or 4 weeks.
Almost 2 million people in London were one week’s wages away from destitution. The loss of one bread winner could throw an entire family into the streets as paupers within a few short weeks. In the middle Victorian period, the quality of food in Great Britain was actually quite good, it’s nutritional value greater than what most of us enjoy today. The trick in the East End of London would have been to consistently acquire the variety of nutrition available and to eat that food before it rotted away. The effort to gain at least a portion of that every day must have been very difficult.
—Alan M. Clark
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