» Dr. John Snow: Victorian Physician

Dr. John Snow: Victorian Physician

This blog was posted on the Dashing Duchesses page on March 19, 2012.

Not all Victorian heroes were tall, dark, and brooding. Come to think of it, not all Victorian heroes were handsome. Case in point? Dr. John Snow, a Victorian doctor who arguably saved thousands of lives in the mid-nineteenth century by proving cholera was transmitted by water. Hero face? Err… not so much. But heroic heart? I think so. And while the face of the man who inspired not only my choice of career but also the period about which I write might not be swoon-worthy, his brilliant yet simple theories certainly were.

I became interested Dr. John Snow when I first set out on a career in epidemiology, which is the science that tracks the origins of diseases and develops ways to prevent and control them. Every year, “The Pump Handle Award” is given to an epidemiologist who has made important contributions to the field. Curious, I set out to research the history of this award, and discovered it traced back to Dr. John Snow.  In learning about the man who inspired an entire discipline of science, I unwittingly unleashed a love of history, especially facts centered on science and medicine in the Victorian era.

Dr. Snow wasn’t just a good physician – the man was a rock star. He had the good fortune of practicing medicine during one of the most scientifically prolific times in history, the advent of modern medicine. He was both the Sanjay Gupta and Dr. House of his time, and while not everyone agreed with him, everyone knew him. Dr. Snow was one of the first physicians to use ether as an anesthetic, and was personally called in to deliver the miraculous drug to Queen Victoria during one of her deliveries. But Snow didn’t just use ether on patients – he experimented with it.  On himself. And diddled with the concentrations until he developed exact dosages and modes of delivery.

He wasn’t afraid to buck the establishment, either. During a time period when everyone believed in the miasmatic theory of disease transmission (that illness was carried by bad smells on the air), he argued that the most logical mode of transmission of cholera was actually by water. He was literally laughed at by his peers, but he doggedly set out to prove his theory correct, painstakingly researching cholera cases and noting patients’ histories and water suppliers. Then came his big breakthrough: a cholera epidemic struck Soho, a small, poor area of London, in 1854. John Snow mapped the deaths with a crude hand-drawn map and saw they centered around the communal water pump on Broad Street supplying water to the local residents. He argued mightily for the local Board of Health to remove the handle from the pump and force residents to walk further to get their water from a different pump. In doing so, he upset a lot of lazy Londoners, but he also stopped the epidemic.

Today, a pub stands at the corner of Broad Street with an engraved plague noting the area where the water pump once stood. Epidemiologists from all over the world stop by when they are in London and sign a register and raise a pint to the inspiring Dr. Snow. When I visited England in 2001 to assist with the country’s Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak, I  stopped by and enjoyed a pint myself, and felt like I was a tiny part of history.  Of course, it is fate’s last laugh that the man who was a teetotaler during his time should be honored with a pub after his death. When I set out to write my first historical romance,  I could think of no time period in which I would rather write, and of course I modeled my first hero after John Snow. Alas, although the man was indeed heroic, romantic he was not. He was the very model of “eccentric bachelor”, and it is little wonder my first novel fell flat. But it was successful in unleashing my passion for all things history, and I have never looked back.

Folks who are interested in reading more about John Snow and this amazing time in history should read the Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson.