Happy Birthday John Snow

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John Snow, 1856

John Snow, 1813-1858

We couldn’t let today pass without acknowledging the bicentenary of the birth of Dr John Snow, whose pioneering work on the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London became a model for the epidemiological study of disease.  Indeed, the definition of epidemiology, as the study of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in populations, could easily be a summary of Snow’s approach to identifying the source of cholera around the Broad Street area of London.  Nor did Snow’s contribution to medicine stop at epidemiology. His work in anaesthesiology culminated in the administration of choloroform to Queen Victoria during childbirth.

There are many events celebrating John Snow’s achievements this year.  If you are in London from 13th March-17th April, you can catch an exhibition called ‘Cartographies of Life & Death – John Snow and Disease’.  Amongst other things, the exhibition offers the rare chance to see the Wellcome Library’s copy of the ‘Report on the mortality of cholera in England, 1848-49‘, authored by Snow’s contemporary, Dr. William Farr, the man who laid much of the foundation for epidemiology in the United Kingdom.

Charts of temperature & mortality of London, 1840-50

Chart showing temperature and mortality of London for every week of 11 years, 1840-50 from Farr’s Report on the 1849 cholera epidemic. WI no. L0039176

The two men made use of statistical data to draw very different conclusions: Farr supported the idea of general miasmas as the source of cholera, whereas Snow proposed that contaminated water was the source of transmission.  Snow used data from Farr’s report of this earlier outbreak, along with his own statistics for the later Broad Street outbreak to support his theory, but it was not until the third cholera epidemic in London, in 1866, that Farr came round to Snow’s theory, but by then Snow had been dead 8 years.

Map showing deaths from cholera in London, 1854-1855. From Snow's report 'On the mode of communication of cholera', 1855

Map showing deaths from Cholera around Broad Street from 1854-55. From ‘On the mode of communiction of cholera’ by Snow. WI no. L0063431

If you want to find out more about the medical detective story of John Snow and cholera, visit our friends at the Sick City Project for the full story.

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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