Famous Names

John Snow

John_SnowWelcome to the second edition of “Famous Names in Public Health!” In this segment, I will give recognition to individuals who have made significant contributions to the fields of public health and medicine.

While Ygritte from “Game of Thrones” may disagree, it turns out that John Snow did know something. In fact, a man with the same moniker is credited as the father of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of the distribution and determinants health outcomes and diseases in a population.

John Snow lived in London in the 1850s, at a time when modern health practices didn’t exist. It was widely believed that diseases and illness had some divine component and could be a kind of Godly punishment. People did not wash themselves or their hands daily, and they certainly didn’t know much about how infections spread. Sewage and waste were dumped in the streets, and water sources were easily contaminated. Fecal-Oral transmission was not a term or a recognized cause of disease in those days. In fact, Germ Theory was still gaining momentum and acceptance among scientists at this time. Microorganisms were seen as a secondary result of infection, not the cause. Dr. Snow’s actions helped cement this theory and forever change the management of disease outbreaks for centuries to come.

It all started when an outbreak of cholera (which is briefly described here) in London in 1854. The outbreak began in Soho and caused a staggering 550 deaths in just 2 weeks. Due to this, Dr.Snow went door-to-door to track the progression of the disease, and he color coded a map of the city outlining the affected and unaffected residents. Through his work, he was able to analyze the information for patterns, and he discovered that everyone in the afflicted area used the same water pump, the Broad Street water pump. After presenting his findings, the handle to the pump was removed , and the amount of cholera cases in the community decreased dramatically.

Although it took a significant amount of time for the spread of cholera to be linked to contaminated water, despite the evidence found in Dr.Snow’s research, his methodical and systematic pursuit of knowledge and information, as well as his analysis that ruled out other possible contributing factors of disease set the foundation of epidemiological research in the future.

Dr. Snow is also noted to have contributed to the study of the new field of anesthesiology and to have linked cholera disease to water-borne conditions.



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