You can be forgiven for not having heard the name James Chadwick before. No, not the Nobel prize-winning British physicist who discovered the neutron. I’m talking about the one who lived a century earlier. This James Chadwick is an obscure figure in British history. He is barely remembered, if at all, in Britain, and is more or less completely unknown outside his home country. But his life displays a mind-bogglingly interesting series of strange connections that shows just how amazingly connected history can be.

To begin with, his father, Andrew Chadwick, was a good friend of John Wesley, the Church of England reformer who, along with his brother Charles, founded the “Methodist Movement”. This sect, which emphasized open-air evangelical preaching, eventually became the Methodist Church, a Protestant denomination with around 12 million members today. Andrew also started the first Sunday School in the county of Lancashire.

Andrew apparently practiced what he preached when it came to giving his money away to the less fortunate. Unlike other sons of Britain’s rich, James was forced to get a job and provide for his family. So he began his adult life as a teacher. History doesn’t record if James was a good or bad teacher, but he must have done something right, because one of his pupils, John Dalton, is generally credited with discovering the atom and for doing the first major research into color blindness, which was for years called Daltonism in his honor.

James later left teaching to become a journalist, and to that end he spent time in Paris. There he was a roommate of the Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, which popularized the American Revolution, The Crisis, which urged Americans not to abandon hope in the darkest hours of the revolution, and The Rights of Man, a treatise on human rights inspired by the French Revolution.

James’ oldest son was Edwin Chadwick and, like his father, Edwin had to make his own way in the world. He trained as a lawyer, but worked part-time as a journalist to get by while in school. His second published article, called “Preventive Police”, attracted the attention of the social reformer Jeremy Bentham, who hired him as an assistant. In time, Edwin became known as a great social reformer… but not in the “touchy-feely” modern sense.

You see, many Victorians felt that the poor were poor because they were lazy. Things like racism, crushing taxes, an unjust debt system, and lack of education wouldn’t enter in to the equation for another century or so. And so, after a breathtakingly thorough review of the situation (Chadwick’s report spanned 13 volumes!) Britain instituted a series of workhouses for the poor throughout the country. These were little better, if not actually worse, than many prisons. Most workhouses required their charges to wear some type of uniform, only allowed them to leave the workhouses in the most dire circumstances, forbade talking during meals and other common times, and provided meals that gave only the barest amount of nutrition. And, in most cases, prisoners were actually given better medical care than those in the workhouses.

To help pay for all this, the poor worked long hours in unspeakable conditions, often doing jobs that no one else wanted. For example, one job popular at workhouses was preparing oakum, a primitive type of caulk most often used in shipbuilding. Old hemp ropes were picked apart, strand by strand, an agonizing process that could tear fingertips apart. Depending on age and other factors, a member of a workhouse had to produce anywhere from one to five pounds of it per day, six days a week.

Chadwick didn’t do all this because was mean… he did it because it was thought that poor people would show up at the workhouses in the tens of thousands, and Victorians were notoriously frugal when it came to helping the poor. By making the workhouses as unattractive as possible, it was hoped that Chadwick could both save the taxpayer money and scare the poor into applying themselves more.

Edwin did such a smashing job with the poor that in 1839 he was approached by authorities in Whitechapel for his help with a localized epidemic. Chadwick was so appalled at the sanitary situation there that he published, at his own expense, his most famous work, Report . . . on an Enquiry into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, in 1843. The work became the basis for modern sewage and sanitation techniques in most of the Western world. But Chadwick didn’t write it out of love or pity for the poor. He felt that improving the health of the working class would, once again, save Victorians money in the long run.

Interestingly, for all his emphasis on science and the scientific method, Edwin Chadwick would go to his death believing in the miasma theory of disease, which states that diseases are caused by foul odors. Chadwick thought that diseases would simply disappear if one could channel away the stench of feces, urine and rotting garbage. This put him in direct opposition to John Snow, an English doctor who carefully mapped out all the cases of cholera during an 1854 outbreak in Soho, and who correctly surmised that it was caused by something in the water. Snow pointed out many logical problems with the miasma theory. He asked why, if “bad air” were the cause of cholera, did people in Southwark fall ill with the disease, but people in neighboring Lambeth did not. He also wondered if “bad air” caused disease, why was there not a single case of a sewer worker or nightsoil man (a person who removed human waste from a household for a fee) coming down with the disease. Chadwick used all his political power to make sure that Snow’s views were ignored by the establishment, and it wasn’t until a later outbreak that Snow’s work received the attention it deserved.

John Snow's Cholera Map
John Snow's original cholera map

As you might have guessed, Edwin Chadwick wasn’t very popular with the British working class. Some called him “the single most hated man in Britain”. But even people of his own social class seemed not to like him. Chadwick could become obsessed with whatever he was working on at the time, and would often force companions to endure hours-long discussions about some arcane aspect of poverty or sewage or policing. Chadwick could also be incredibly self-righteous, often to the point of offensiveness. It seems that his own father didn’t even like him: when Edwin’s mother died, James remarried and moved the rest of the family first to western England, then to Brooklyn, where all communication between father and son ceased.

Edwin had a step-brother named Henry. And as soon as Henry arrived in America, he became obsessed with baseball. Henry became a journalist like his father, and he not only helped popularize the sport in newspapers, he also invented the box score (which, thanks to Henry’s English upbringing, closely resembles the box score for a cricket match). Henry also invented the scorecard, and came up with many of the statistics baseball fans so love today, including batting and earned run averages. It was Henry who came up with the idea for using the letter K to indicate a strike out; as history tells it, Henry felt there were already too many abbreviations using an S, and K is the last letter of the word struck. Although most Americans consider Abner Doubleday to be the inventor of baseball, many hardcore baseball fans consider Henry Chadwick to be the inventor of modern baseball.

So there you have it. James Chadwick is nearly unknown to history. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, and the very few references you can find to him online point to dusty old books Google has scanned. But this man’s father was a close confidant of a man who invented a religion, he himself can be directly connected to both Thomas Paine and the discovery of the atom, and his sons founded both modern sewage treatment practices and the game of baseball… and one of them butted heads with the man who actually proved the germ theory of disease.

But there’s just one last thing. I find it absolutely stunning that human beings didn’t know what fertilizer actually did until very late in the nineteenth century.

Food is our most basic necessity, and humans have been engaged in agricultural pursuits since at least 7000BC. Although farmers all over the world had known for millennia that crops grew better when certain things were added to the soil, no one really knew why this was. English farmers doused their crops with almost anything you can imagine, from human and animal feces to ground-up bones to ash to sawdust to oyster shells and even old rags. What was worse, no one seemed to be interested in keeping notes as to what worked and what didn’t. In 1830, no English farmer could tell you which fertilizer worked best, or worked better in combination with another, or even how much to use on a given crop.

This uncertainty came to a screeching halt a little later in the 1830s when British explorers found vast deposits of guano (bird droppings) on the west coast of South America and on many islands in the Pacific. Guano seemed to be the very miracle European agriculture needed. It appeared to vastly increase yields, no matter what crop was growing and what type of soil it grew in. Almost overnight, a huge industry in guano sprang up. European ships hauled the stuff away by the ton, and guano deposits built-up over the centuries were harvested bare in only a few years.

But you might wonder why Edwin Chadwick only “discovered” London’s sewage issue in 1839. After all, the city was almost 1,900 years old by that time… hadn’t the issue ever come up before?

Well, no. And that’s because nightsoil men, in addition to getting a fee from households that wanted rid of their waste, also sold the waste to farmers who used it on their crops. But by the 1830s, guano had taken over, and farmers no longer wanted to buy human waste from the nightsoil men. So at the time Chadwick led his investigation London was, very literally, drowning in shit.

With guano reserves running out and nightsoil men becoming a thing of the past, what was needed was a synthetic fertilizer, which came about thanks to the work of a man named John Bennet Lawes. Lawes was, for some reason, positively obsessed with fertilizers, and in 1842 he patented the first artificial fertilizer, although he wasn’t entirely sure how or why it worked. It would be several more years before anyone really understood why fertilizers were needed, and it wouldn’t be until the early twentieth century that humans fully understood how fertilizers worked… even though they’d been farming for almost 10,000 years!

2 Replies to “Connections”

  1. Outstanding as always. Did you ever see the BBC series Connections? It was similar to this but on television.

    I marvel sometimes at the families that always seemed to be in the middle of things.

  2. “Connections”? I’ve seen all the episodes of that, plus the follow-up series “The Day the Universe Changed”, I have both books based on the series, most of Burke’s other books, and have downloaded both series!

    Obviously, I love me some James Burke! 🙂

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