I’m almost certainly going to regret that title. Anyway, I’m feeling a little under the weather at present, so appropriately enough I’m going to talk about Dr John Snow of Soho.

Not this one, silly!

Not this one, silly!

Dr Snow was a Soho doctor of the nineteenth century. He was a fastidious man – a teetotaller and vegetarian who would only drink water that had first been boiled.
Given the state of drinking water in London at the time, you might think this was quite sensible.Except that at the time, nobody knew that disease could be transmitted by bad water. In fact, Snow was the one who discovered this.
See, at the time, nobody really knew how disease was spread. The most popular theory was that it was caused by “miasma” or foul air. In some ways, the theory made perfect sense. After all, outbreaks of disease tended to occur most frequently in poor, squalid and filthy areas, which also had a tendency to smell pretty funky.
Therefore, the idea seemed pretty sound.miasma
However, there were other theories. For instance, they hadn’t yet ruled out freaky ground gases, atmospheric electricity or moral depravity.
1848 saw an outbreak of cholera in London more severe than had ever been witnessed before. Cholera is a vile disease. It begins with severe vomiting and diarrhoea and ends with renal failure and death. At its worst, it can kill within hours of becoming apparent. Rehydration is vital (one possible derivation of the term is the Greek word “khole,” or “drainpipe”), although these days the disease can be treated with antibiotics.
As the disease felled thousands across Britain, something didn’t ring true about the miasma theory to Snow. First of all, if it was caused by miasma, shouldn’t it have killed, for example, sewage workers first of all? Secondly, the spread of the disease in Dumfries didn’t fit the theory – Dumfries was regarded as an airy, healthy place to live.
It seemed to the good doctor that the miasma theory stank. So what was the common cause? Why was it that some streets were unaffected and others were blighted?
monstersoupHe set about collecting statistics, and realised that it was in the water. The streets that were affected all got their water from certain pumps. 
The fact that the water supply in London was revolting was nothing new. This famous cartoon, entitled Monster Soup, was published in 1827. The caption below reads, “MONSTER SOUP commonly called THAMES WATER being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!!!” Two years previously, the water in the Fleet River had become so noxious that it had actually exploded, destroying part of Clerkenwell. Not even joking.
The problem was that London’s sewage system was wholly inadequate for the demands placed upon it by the rapid growth of the population in the early nineteenth century, not to mention the increasing popularity of Joseph Bramah’s exciting invention, the “Water Closet” of 1778 (no, Thomas Crapper did not invent it). Sewage either went into the wholly inadequate Roman/medieval sewage system or had to be collected in cesspools which you’d then have to pay to have emptied. In many poor areas, they couldn’t afford to have the pools emptied. They would overflow – contaminating the clean water the people were supposed to drink.
In 1842, Edwin Chadwick figured that the problem would be alleviated by connecting all homes to the existing sewer system. Wrong! In fact, this only served to drain the overworked sewers directly into the Thames. That would be the same Thames that the water companies drew from. So not only were the poor still suffering, but the rich who could afford to pay the water company rates were also becoming infected. D’oh!
choleraSnow published his theory in 1848. It was ignored. Then 1854 saw another outbreak of cholera in Broad Street (now Broadwick Street), close to Snow’s surgery. Snow immediately set to work researching the spread of the disease, and concluded that everyone (everyone) on Broad Street who had the disease drank from the Broad Street pump. A number of children living in the area had come down with the disease – their school drew water from the pump. An old woman in Hampstead had died of cholera – she had water delivered from Broad Street because she preferred the taste (“Mmm! Tastes like pathogens!”).
He presented this pretty strong evidence to the parish council, and the pump handle was immediately removed. The outbreak ended almost immediately. Later research revealed that a cesspit had leaked into the water. Yum yum.
Despite this, the Powers that Be weren’t entirely keen on this whole waterborne disease idea, largely because the idea of poo in the water was just totally gross. The concept was opposed in no small part by the water companies, which I like to imagine as consisting of enormously fat men in waistcoats.
Father Thames introduces the kids - Scrofula, Diptheria and Cholera.

Father Thames introduces the kids - Scrofula, Diptheria and Cholera.

See, if Snow’s theory was correct, then fairly obviously they were in a lot of trouble. They would have no choice but to accept the complaints made against them over the years, that the water was fit for neither man nor beast. People wouldn’t pay top dollar to drink someone else’s wee (except for certain fetishists). Worse still, Chadwick’s earlier report had recommended that the Thames be abandoned altogether as a source of water, which would have meant ruination for those fat men in waistcoats.

William Farr

William Farr

It wasn’t until 1866 that the Fitzrovia-based Dr William Farr pointed out that, frankly, this was getting silly. There was another outbreak, clearly waterborne, which subsided as soon as people stopped taking water from the Old Ford reservoir in East London. He finally managed to persuade the Powers that Be of the theory, and improvements in sewage and water treatment virtually eliminated the disease in the developed world.

Alas, Snow had died of a stroke in 1858 at the age of just 45. Nonetheless, Farr’s work vindicated him and he now occupies his rightful place in the medical hall of fame as the founder of modern epidemiology. Today he is also commemorated by a memorial in Broadwick Street.
It consists of a pump. With no handle.

John Snow. Not pictured: cholera
John Snow. Not pictured: cholera









Further reading – Herein is a photo of the memorial.



Filed under 19th century, Fitzrovia, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Soho, Thames

5 responses to “Snow-ho

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