John Simon: London’s first medical officer of health

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By | From the Collections

painting of John Simon

Sir John Simon, Wellcome Library ref. 45812i

As the largest city in the world, 19th century London had become also one of the filthiest: as the population grew, so too did its slums, sewage problems and, inevitably infections. By 1848, the stench and bacteria spreading filth was overwhelming: a cholera epidemic hit the city. Public health suddenly became a hot topic thanks to the social reformer Edwin Chadwick, Sanitary Commissioner of London for the First Board of Health. On the back of Chadwick’s recommendations and the Public Health Act of 1848, John Simon was appointed the first Medical Officer of Health for London.

A trained surgeon, Simon was not known for his sanitary expertise, but he soon trail-blazed a path of public health reform that effectively altered the issue from a political debate to one of scientific investigation. His unique and colourful method of communication provides a fascinating social analysis of mid Victorian London.

His first report as a Medical Officer of Health (MOH) has recently been digitised as part of London’s Pulse, an online resource that brings together more than 5500 medical officer of health reports for the London area from 1848-1972. The inevitable, though alarming, increase in mortality in the City of London convinced Simon that …

the frightful phenomenon of a periodic pestilence belongs only to defective sanitary arrangements

He drew particular attention to the problem of ‘house-drainage’ which was ‘a general evil in all the poorer districts’:

His descriptions are sometimes incongruously poetic: houses situated literally over cesspools “…as a bell-glass over the beak of a retort, receiving and sucking up incessantly the unspeakable abomination of its volatile contents”

Simon’s work as an MOH had an impact on the 1858 Medical Reform Act: under his office, he established a state medical department in which he ensured scientific research played a crucial role, improved public vaccination and helped organise the medical profession.

Simon was not just a public health champion. He was very active socially, particularly within emerging artistic circles. In his Personal Memoirs, Simon shamelessly name drops numerous ‘friendships’: among them, Mowbray Morris (Manager of The Times in 1848), Edwin Chadwick (‘of whom we entertained high esteem’ though he later distanced himself from Chadwick in the 1850s),  but most notably the art critic John Ruskin, a fellow mountaineer with whom Simon had an ‘affectionate association’. The painter Edward Burne Jones was also a neighbour and friend of the family.

Author: Julia Nurse is Content and Metadata Officer at the Wellcome Library.

The medical officer of health reports for London, from 1848-1972, are freely available online (with full-text searching) via the London’s Pulse website and in the Wellcome Library catalogue.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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