Dr. John Snow: Victorian Physician and Hero

   Not all Victorian heroes were tall, dark, and brooding. Come to think of it, not all Victorian heroes were handsome. Case in point? Dr. John Snow, a Victorian doctor who arguably saved thousands of lives in the mid-nineteenth century by proving cholera was transmitted by water. Hero face? Err… not so much. But heroic heart? I think so. And while the face of the man who inspired not only my choice of career but also the period about which I write might not be swoon-worthy, his brilliant yet simple theories certainly were.

I became interested Dr. John Snow when I first set out on a career in epidemiology, which is the science that tracks the origins of diseases and develops ways to prevent and control them. Every year, “The Pump Handle Award” is given to an epidemiologist who has made important contributions to the field. Curious, I set out to research the history of this award, and discovered it traced back to Dr. John Snow.  In learning about the man who inspired an entire discipline of science, I unwittingly unleashed a love of history, especially facts centered on science and medicine in the Victorian era.

Dr. Snow wasn’t just a good physician – the man was a rock star. He had the good fortune of practicing medicine during one of the most scientifically prolific times in history, the advent of modern medicine. He was both the Sanjay Gupta and Dr. House of his time, and while not everyone agreed with him, everyone knew him. Dr. Snow was one of the first physicians to use ether as an anesthetic, and was personally called in to deliver the miraculous drug to Queen Victoria during one of her deliveries. But Snow didn’t just use ether on patients – he experimented with it.  On himself. And diddled with the concentrations until he developed exact dosages and modes of delivery.

He wasn’t afraid to buck the establishment, either. During a time period when everyone believed in the miasmatic theory of disease transmission (that illness was carried by bad smells on the air), he argued that the most logical mode of transmission of cholera was actually by water. He was literally laughed at by his peers, but he doggedly set out to prove his theory correct, painstakingly researching cholera cases and noting patients’ histories and water suppliers. Then came his big breakthrough: a cholera epidemic struck Soho, a small, poor area of London, in 1854. John Snow mapped the deaths with a crude hand-drawn map and saw they centered around the communal water pump on Broad Street supplying water to the local residents. He argued mightily for the local Board of Health to remove the handle from the pump and force residents to walk further to get their water from a different pump. In doing so, he upset a lot of lazy Londoners, but he also stopped the epidemic.

Today, a pub stands at the corner of Broad Street with an engraved plaque noting the area where the water pump once stood. Epidemiologists from all over the world stop by when they are in London and sign a register and raise a pint to the inspiring Dr. Snow. When I visited England in 2001 to assist with the country’s Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak, I  stopped by and enjoyed a pint myself, and felt like I was a tiny part of history.  Of course, it is fate’s last laugh that the man who was a teetotaler during his time should be honored with a pub after his death. When I set out to write my first historical romance,  I could think of no time period in which I would rather write, and of course I modeled my first hero after John Snow. Alas, although the man was indeed heroic, romantic he was not. He was the very model of “eccentric bachelor”, and it is little wonder my first novel fell flat. But it was successful in unleashing my passion for all things history, and I have never looked back.

Folks who are interested in reading more about John Snow and this amazing time in history should read the Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson.


on “Dr. John Snow: Victorian Physician and Hero
43 Comments on “Dr. John Snow: Victorian Physician and Hero
  1. Jennifer, great article! I first heard about John Snow via GHOST MAP. Such an incredible book. What I remember most about the story was his courage. How he would walk into the midst of a cholera infected area to conduct his research.

  2. Jennifer,

    Great post. I’d heard of him before now, but never really knew what he did until now. Thank you for sharing the knowledge.

  3. Fascinating article. I wrote my first novel after visiting the basement of the Bird Cage Theater. So, I guess it says something that you were inspired by a heroic doctor while I was inspired by prostitutes and poker players….

  4. Great post, Duchess Jennifer! And a fascinating physician. It’s amazing to think how quickly the art and science of medicine changes, and how it only takes one person to change the collective knowledge world (though it might take some time!)

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Alyssa! Yes, I love reading about the Game Changers. The ones that were laughed at, then proved the world wrong and never looked back. I just wish he was a little more easy on the eyes…

  5. I think you could create an eccentric spinster for him and they would fall passionately in love. Pull that old ms back out! Or not. :) Great article, Duchess Jennifer, and all news to me. I adore researching real people from history and comparing it to how they are remembered. Like you said, ironic that he’s memorialized with a pub!!!

  6. Jennifer, a wonderful post! Nothing was more exciting than science in the 19th century. Such a wealth of ideas and changes. Dr. Snow was a true hero, wasn’t he?

    • Hi Gillian! Yes, I find an incredible amount of inspiration in ordinary folks in the Victorian era. I am thinking my next post may be on the Florence Nightingale noone knew… now, she was RABIDLY in favor of the miasmatic theory of disease. And she ended up being wrong… but boy, you didn’t really want to cross her.

  7. Interesting post, Jen. I had never heard of Dr. Snow either. How cool it is that the location of the pump is a now tourist draw for the world’s epidemiologists. And how convenient that it is at a pub!

    • It is. We are such geeks. That register was a mile long, and included some very famous names (like former directors of the CDC). And unlike Snow, most of us are not teetotallers. There is too much statistical support for the idea of 1 glass of red wine a day improving health for us to ignore. Now I don’t take a vitamin. But this health advice I like. :)

  8. Loved your story of being inspired by Dr. Snow, Jennifer! Definitely a hero in the best sense of the world. What a difference he made for so many people, and to be willing to push past the ignorance and judging of his peers argues to a remarkable character. Am excited to read the book you mentioned — what a fascinating time it was for science. Great post!

    • You know, I didn’t… but alcohol content would kill Vibrio, the organism that causes cholera. In fact, there was a minister in 1854 who DIDN’T get sick and was rather suspicious of Snow’s theories about the water, b/c he drank water that had been collected from the pump. Of course, he mixed his with spirits…

    • I know! I think science and medicine is still a very cool field, and not nearly as complicated as everyone makes it out to be. I am working on a project right now involving Rocky Mountain spotted fever and ticks where I KNOW if I can just get people to spay and neuter their dogs, I can save human lives. It isn’t rocket science, but changing entrenched ideas and preconceptions is the hardest part.

  9. What a wonderful post! I’ve always loved that story about Dr. Snow and the water handle, but I think it’s wonderful that his story have inspired your stories. I’m sure he’d love to know he was featured (at least his time frame was) in one of your historical romances. So I have to ask–will your heroine break with society’s rules and try to go to medical school?

    • Hi Sharon! Not my current heroine… but I do have one percolating who absolutely insists on being admitted to something to do with the medical profession which *gasp* is no place for a lady!

  10. Very cool post!!!

    I love science heroes–the way they stand up against the scorn of their peers in pursuit of the truth.

    I find that totally swoonworthy! Surely you could “fictionalize” Dr. Snow a bit and get a fine hero out of him….I’d read that book for sure!

    • Thanks for visiting Elisa! I tried. Good Lord I tried. But his idea of a good time was counting dead bodies, and well, I suspect he didn’t quite know what to do with a living breathing one, much less one sporting two X chromosomes. :)

  11. I so enjoyed your blog, Valerie. Thanks for finding me on Goodreads. And interestingly enough, my post tomorrow on my blog will focus on research I did while working on my historical. Like attracts like, I guess.

  12. As I read your post, I kept thinking: his name sounds familiar…it wasn’t until I had a look through a few research books that I recognized Dr. Snow! He was featured in a book about Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who cleaned up London with his sewers. After reading that book, I wanted to take a shower–and it upended my view of London as the clean and beautiful city painted in Regency and Victorian Historicals!

  13. Jennifer McQuiston:
    Evangeline Holland,

    Evangeline – I am guessing you mean “The Great Stink of London: Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis” by Stephen Halliday. Also excellent reading! It’s on my keeper shelf.

    Wow. I am such a geek.

    We are all geeks when it comes to history, LOL.

    But don’t feel alone–I have a crazed obsession with old maps and mark down books that fail to feature them.

Comments are closed.