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Dr John Snow (1813-1858)

Voted the greatest physician of all time by British doctors.

Long after his own death, Dr Snow is still saving thousands of lives around the world. He proved that cholera was spread by infected drinking water.

London's crowded slums London’s crowded slums, like this one at Seven Dials, were breeding grounds for cholera and typhoid. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Over 500 people died of cholera in just ten days in Soho in 1854. Snow’s dogged research showed that most of the dead had drunk bacteria-ridden water from the same public pump. Sadly it took another 30 years – and thousands more deaths – for people to accept and act on his findings.

John Snow water pump Visit Soho’s Broadwick Street to find a memorial at the spot where Snow proved cholera was spread through infected drinking water in 1854. The water pump, with its handle removed, stands opposite a pub named in his honour. (Credit: Justinc / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA))

By contrast, Snow’s pioneering work on anaesthetics was recognised in his lifetime. He studied the effects of ether and chloroform, which could be fatal, and developed instruments for putting patients safely to sleep during medical procedures. His skills were so highly regarded that Queen Victoria allowed him to anaesthetise her for the births of two of her children.

Queen Victoria with Princess Beatrice Queen Victoria with Princess Beatrice, her ninth and final child. Snow anaesthetised the queen with chloroform during Beatrice’s birth. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

During his medical training, Snow became a teetotal vegetarian. He read medical papers that described the negative effects of animal products and alcohol on the body, and was inspired to join the Temperance Society.

After about ten years Snow’s health began to deteriorate. He and his friends decided the strict diet was to blame for his many illnesses, so Snow went back to meat and wine! However, he continued to drink only clear, well-boiled water for the rest of his life.

Further information

John Snow Grave - White memorial topped with draped urn

Snow’s memorial was damaged by a bomb in World War II and replaced by fellow physicians.

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