Thank you

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“Thank you,” is what I said to a reader from Ohio whose email suggested that some of the insights I share here are too simple—almost borderline primitive. Why did I take that as a compliment? Because the adjective primitive means not derived from something else, or original if you will. (The adjective also mean basic as in fundamental.)

Now, let me tell you a story—it’s about Dr. John Snow, the physician who single-handedly stopped a deadly 1854 London cholera outbreak. Since you are pressed for time, I’ll keep it short:

When the deadly disease struck London back in 1854, two hundred people died in the first three days. In the next following days, some five hundred more died. The dominant belief was that diseases like cholera were cause by ‘miasmas‘ — a form of ‘bad’ air. But Snow was skeptical. So he made a simple map of where the deceased had lived. And guess what—he found that they were all clustered around a single water source, a well in Soho’s Broad Street. After he spoke to the relatives and neighbours of the deceased about their daily habits, he concluded that contaminated water had caused the outbreak. (It was shortly after discovered that the well was dug next to a leaking cesspit.)

What’s interesting was Snow’s solution: he convinced the local city council to simply remove the water well’s pump handle. Yes, you could call it primitive. But it disabled the well and ended the spread of disease. Did I mention that it also established the essential methods of outbreak investigation that infectious disease specialists follow to this day? (I first heard this story from Atul Gawande in his remarkable book The Checklist Manifesto.)

My 2¢: Next time before you dismiss a primitive idea, please give it five minutes.