The story of tiny shrimps (copepods) found in New York drinking water, which has made its way around the internet in the last few days, reminded me of a postcard I recently picked up at the Wellcome Collection.
It is an 1828 coloured etching by William Heath (1795-1840; also known by his pseudonym Paul Pry), showing a lady who drops her tea-cup in horror upon discovering the monstrous contents of a magnified drop of Thames water; revealing the impurity of London drinking water.
The top title reads: “MICROCOSM dedicated to the London Water Companies. Brought forth all monstrous, all prodigious things, hydras and organs, and chimeras dire.”
Bottom lettering: “MONSTER SOUP commonly called THAMES WATER, being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!”
The image is probably a reference to the water distributed by the Chelsea Water works. By the 1820s, public concern was growing at the increasingly polluted water supply taken from the River Thames in London. It was contaminated by sewage and waste, making it a prime source of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. The city experienced its first outbreaks of cholera in 1831 and 1832.
It also taps into a huge contemporary surge of popular scientific literature of microscopic investigation: a wealth of books in which the hidden life of water drawn from the sea or land – and particularly from the meeting point between both (rock pools) – took centre stage. The world of ‘monstrous’ polyps, infusoria, rotifers, water bears and polyzoa, hidden to the naked eye, fascinated amateurs and experts alike.
Drop of water under a microscope, in Le Magasin pittoresque, no. 19, 1833, p. 145.
Nineteenth-century books investigating the hidden, microscopic world of water include Agnes Catlow’s Drops of Water; Their Marvellous and Beautiful Inhabitants Displayed by the Microscope (1851); The Story of a Drop of Water (ed. Catharine Long, 1856); Charles Kingsley’s Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore (1854); G.H. Lewes’s Sea-Side Studies (1858); Philip Henry Gosse’s A Year at the Shore (1865); and Henry James Slack’s Marvels of Pond Life (1861).