John Snow

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John Snow

Background information

John Snow (1813-1858) is revered as a founding father of two medical disciplines. Anesthesiologists remember him as the physician who first made anesthesia scientific by showing how the human body responded to different doses of anesthetic drugs, and how anesthesia affected the human physiology. (Johnson 206)

John Snow was the oldest child of a laboring-class family in York. His father eventually became a farmer and landlord, with sufficient property value to make him eligible to vote after the first Reform Bill of 1832. Snow, himself, undertook a parallel path in social mobility, from medical apprentice to separate qualifications as a surgeon, apothecary, and physician. He was apprenticed at the age of fourteen to a surgeon-apothecary in Newcastle for six years. Thereafter, he served as an uncertified assistant apothecary for a year in rural Durham and two years in rural West Yorkshire. In the late summer of 1836, he walked from York to London, via Liverpool, Wales, and Bath. He attended lectures at the Hunterian School of Medicine and "walked the wards" at the Westminster Hospital. He qualified as a surgeon and as an apothecary in 1838, as a physician in 1844. He lived and practiced in metropolitan London until his death in 1858. (Vinten-Johansen et al 89)

During his apprenticeship, he converted to vegetarianism. The book that influenced him toward adopting that diet stressed the disease-causing properties of impure drinking water, which may partly explain his attraction to a water-borne theory of cholera transmission almost two decades later. At this time, he also made a pledge to advance temperance, a cause in which he was joined by several family members and which he would support for the rest of his life(Körner 34).

Claim To Fame

Snow formulated his theory of cholera transmission and undertook shoe-leather epidemiological investigations a decade before Pasteur's ground-breaking experiments on microbes. His ability to reason among events occurring at different levels of organization — from the molecular to the physiological, from clinical observations on individual patients to data drawn from entire populations — presage the "biopsychosocial model" of health and disease developed in the 1970s. His most famous act of removing the handle from the pump at a contaminated water-source in order to stop the spread of cholera, is possibly myth. The less journalistic, but far more important, reality is that his insight into the way that cholera spread enabled the 1854 London cholera outbreak to be controlled and brought to an end. Many aspects of Dr Snow's work were based on thoughtful experimentation, bringing together different sciences in a way which anticipates modern medical research. For instance his research on anaesthetics drew on work in physiology, physics and chemistry. (Tufte 112)

Scientific Method

When there is an outbreak of disease somewhere in the world, students expect that doctors and scientists will be sent to the scene to do scientific research on its causes and on possible treatments. But not long ago, diseases were seen as divine punishments or as unfavorable influences of heavenly bodies. John Snow was one of the pioneers who ...
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