June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Scarlett Parr-Reid
25 February 2022

Through rose-tinted lenses 
We may lean into history
Like John Grimshaw’s painted lady
Transfixed by streams of oil and light
Eyes tarrying over Thames waters
Under the self-same moon

We might trace time back in footsteps
To a westward wrinkle
In the fabric of London town
Following the creases of back alleys
Until Broadwick Street becomes Cambridge Street

To a solitary water pump
On the brink? 
Where they did drink
Except brewers too drunk for water

But the water was pestilent
Crawling with cholera contagions 
Ailing is swathes
Seeping slyly in the dead of the night

A disease stoking flames of imperialist unrest
Once, twice, thrice
Epidemics resurging 
From the Indian subcontinent 
In poverty, squalor and despondency

John Snow knew those emaciated faces
Looking beyond meandering miasma
He was mobilised by his forebearers
Jenner and the smallpox vaccine
Farrian mortality maths
Turned feculant cesspits
Into disease-dotted lithographs

Snow’s work was an unromantic science
Where truths were hard-won
Against a cavalry of suspicion and doubt
Where making even with the public 
Is to be the odd one out
Finding distinctions 
In ‘Organised matter’

We are marred by hindsight
Simple suppositions of inevitability
Snow a posthumous figurehead
Pedestalised by practitioners
For an outlier theory

Preceding Koch’s postulates
And Pasteurian bacteriology
We knew not of germ theory 
Or modern microscopy 

Cholera lingers today
With an antimicrobial armoury
Over its shoulders
Traversing Southeast Asia and Africa
Where infrastructure lacks
And sanitation lags behind

Instead of those stories we tell ourselves
Narrativised histories
A fondness for the fallacy of turning points
Let’s speak to the graduality of paradigm shifts 
Quietly rolling revolutions 
Science rippling through time 


Scarlett Parr-Reid is a MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College. She has a BSc in Medical Sciences with Neuroscience from the University of Exeter. Scarlett has been writing free verse, ballad and narrative poetry for the last two years, with work published in the Stemmed zine and as part of the Exeter City of Literature Lockdown Blues project. She regularly shares her poetry on her Instagram stories and is currently working on a performance poetry group project about perceptions of success and failure in science.