John Snow is most well recognized for his work in cholera research, though few realize how much more he really did contribute to our modern view of how science works. John Snow made break through discoveries into anesthesia and its many functions, as well as pioneered epidemiological methods.

John Snow was born into a poor family of eight children, and yet he was afforded many opportunities his parents never were. His mother saw great potential in him, and used the family’s small inheritance to send him to a private school in York. At the age of fourteen he left York to go and apprentice to William Hardcastle, a surgeon based in Newcastle. It was there in Newcastle that Snow encountered cholera for the first time. Working as an apprentice to a surgeon he was able to get a firsthand view on the effects of this disease. As the disease spread rapidly, Hardcastle was unable to care for all of the cases, so Snow was put directly in charge of many patients, giving him valuable experience. John Snow proved to have a very analytical mind, and he noticed details that others overlooked. Following the outbreak of cholera, he enrolled in the Hunterian School of Medicine.

John Snow | Originally uploaded by Rsabbatini |

John Snow | Originally uploaded by Rsabbatini | Creative Commons

After completing his medical degree, Snow became a practicing physician in London. It was there that he began conducting experiments with anesthesia. Snow realized by applying controlled doses of ether and chloroform (Vachon 2005), he was able to create a safe amount of anesthetic for patients. He started out his experimentation on animals at first, and then human subjects. Now people did not have to unduly risk their lives during surgery due to incorrect doses of anesthesia. He was even granted the opportunity to assist in the delivery of two of Queen Victoria’s children, through the administration of anesthesia.  Although John Snow has not been widely recognized for this achievement, he revolutionized an intrinsic part of the surgical process.

For all the outstanding work John Snow contributed to the field of anesthesia, he is most widely recognized for his labor during the cholera outbreak of 1854. Snow had been in contact with cholera before, so he decided to test out a few new theories on how to treat the disease upon its returned to England. Although many in his time believed that miasmas, or unwholesome smells, were the cause of all diseases, Snow had a different idea. He had observed some of the victims during the 1948 outbreak, and found that the disease affected the digestive system rather than the lungs and nose. His analysis led him to conclude that cholera was caused by ingesting contaminated food and water, rather than breathing in poisonous air. Snow approached the disease from the unpopular theory that small animals, or germs, were responsible for much of the sickness in the world. He published his work in On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, but was disregarded by the scientific community for his controversial ideas. John Snow’s work continued, however, and he never stopped trying to prove his idea of where cholera came from. John Snow went from victim to victim, searching for some link that bound them all together. Surveying the area, he eventually concluded that the cause of the outbreak was contaminated water from the broad street pump (Kukaswadia 2013). Although he had little hard scientific evidence, he had compelling statistical evidence. Snow had mapped out all of the victims, proving that almost all of them had come in contact with the water from the Broad Street pump. The evidence was too great to be disregarded, and so the authorities gave in and shut off the pump. This was one of the first uses of epidemiological thinking to prove a scientific theory.

The Broad Street Pump | Wikimedia Commons | Creative Commons

The Broad Street Pump | From Wikimedia Commons | Creative Commons

John Snow was instrumental in developing safe anesthesia application as well as developing epidemiological thinking. The basic methods used by Snow against Cholera were adopted in the fight against many other diseases, like polio and smallpox. Although Snow may have been unpopular in his time, there is no questioning the work that he contributed to modern science.


Works Cited

Vachon, David. “Father of Modern Epidemiology.” UCLA Department of Epidemiology. May 2005. Accessed October 12, 2016.

Kukaswadia, Atif. “John Snow – The First Epidemiologist.” Public Health. March 11, 2013. Accessed October 12, 2016.