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(March 15, 1813 - June 16, 1858)
Born in England
Year of Discovery: 1854
The Father of Epidemiology and One of the First Anesthetists Too!
John Snow, born in England in 1813, is most widely known as the "Father of Epidemiology," but his natural curiosity and penchant for exacting research also allowed him to make significant contributions to the advance of anesthesiology. Snow was the first physician to precisely calculate the proper doses of ether, the most commonly used anesthetic of his time. His real fame, however, stems from his groundbreaking work in fighting cholera. There was no effective means of fighting cholera in the 1800s, and during the London outbreak of 1854, the deaths came fast and furious. Snow's method of mapping the location of each occurrence allowed him to identify the likely source of the cholera outbreak: a water pump on Broad Street. His mapping of that early cholera epidemic laid the foundation for the modern principles of epidemiology.
Epidemiology is the study of how, when, and where disease occurs within populations. There are two basic types of epidemiological studies: prospective and retrospective. Prospective epidemiological studies are forecasters. These studies look at a particular disease and assess the likelihood of its spread within a given population, given a particular set of circumstances. Prospective studies provide much of the guidance to governmental officials for pandemic preparedness. Retrospective studies, on the other hand, look backward - or "sideways." Backward-looking studies evaluate the spread of a disease that has already come and gone, in hopes of better understanding its characteristics in future outbreaks. Sideways-looking studies assess the outbreak of a disease from within as they occur in real time - it's as if the scientist is standing in the eye of a hurricane, with the disease raging about him, trying to track its deadly path. It's this particular type of "sideways" epidemiology that Snow first developed.
Scientists face challenges in all ages. But for Snow, the bar was set particularly high. When the cholera epidemic hit London in 1854, the leading theory of disease was the "miasma" theory - the belief that disease was carried by noxious gases floating in the air. The idea that disease was spread by drinking water contaminated with fecal matter was too appalling to be believed. But as Snow went about mapping each occurrence of cholera, a striking pattern emerged. He discovered that the majority of the cholera deaths - as many as 500 in one ten-day period - occurred within a short distance of the Broad Street pump. Though skeptical, the city officials paid heed to Snow's meticulously rendered map, and ordered the removal of the Broad Street pump handle. This simple act represented the first triumphant blow of epidemiological methods against the scourge of worldwide diseases.
Snow was no stranger to disease, having battled both tuberculosis and renal disease. Perhaps it was this sensitivity that kept his mind always at the ready to explore new methods to alleviate suffering. So when he came across a druggist carrying an odd "ether apparatus" down the street, he immediately began to quiz him as to its use. When he understood that the druggist intended on "getting quite into an ether practice" Snow's mind began to spin. He reasoned that if the use of ether, recently introduced in the United States to alleviate surgical pain, was to be a new wave in England, he should be the one to carry it out. After all, Snow figured, he had the medical expertise to make this new ether anesthesia both safe and effective. So, as was his custom, he set about conducting a series of experiments. He first tested the effects of ether on small animals, recording the doses and the effects. Once reasonably satisfied, he enlisted his first human test subject - himself. Once he had fine-tuned the inhaler used to administer the ether, he began to anesthetize patients at the dental facility at St. George's Hospital. He then began to work with Robert Liston, a highly respected surgeon, at University College. The surgeon was impressed with the quality and outcome of Snow's procedure, and Snow became recognized as the leading anesthetist in London.
Snow was a strict vegetarian and an ardent teetotaler. At the young age of 23, he delivered an impassioned speech to persuade his fellow Londoners to adopt his view. In the opening section, he opined, "If I could bring you, my friends, to see these liquors in the same light as I do, you would then abstain from them without considering it an act of self-denial, or a sacrifice you were making for the benefit of society, but an act of justice to yourselves, the neglect of which would be irrational." Snow, in a belief that could be straight out of today's medical headlines, believed the most suitable drink for optimum health was simple, pure water.
Introduction by Tim Anderson
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Links to More Information About the Scientist
Key Experiment or Research
Quotes by the Scientist
Quotes About the Scientist
Fun Trivia About The Science
The Science Behind the Discovery
Key Contributing Scientists
Science Discovery Timeline
Recommended Books About the Science
Books by the Scientist
Books About the Scientist
Major Academic Papers
Links to Science and Related Information on the Subject
Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
UCLA Department of Epidemiology website dedicated to Snow:
Article on Snow's role in stemming the 1854 London Cholera Epidemic:
Article discussing Snow's role in the early development of anesthesia (pdf):
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The Science Behind the Discovery
Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Brody, Howard, Paneth, Nigel, Rachman, Stephen and Rip. Michael. Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow. Oxford University Press, 2003.
Links to Information on the Science