Heroes of the Past: John Snow (1800s)

John Snow was an English Doctor known for his role in developing anaesthesia and medical hygiene. He was the founding Father of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of disease outbreaks, with a focus on prevention. We present him here as an inspirational EVERYDAY HERO, because of the odds he overcame, bringing preventative healthcare to the general public.

John Snow was born in York, England in 1813. They lived in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the city. John was a highly intelligent child. His mother invested her small inheritance into his education. Snow succeeded and apprenticed to a surgeon in Newcastle at the young age of 14.

He found his life’s calling in 1831, conquering Cholera. Cholera was devastating disease, draining a person of their fluids until they died of dehydration and organ failure.  There was no cure at the time. John’s training barely prepared him for the trauma of his patients’ suffering and dying.

Years later, after John had become a full fledged Doctor, Cholera broke out again in London. John set off to track down the origin of the 1854 outbreak, determined to defeat it.

Before the germ theory was the accepted norm, the dominant theory was the miasma theory. This claimed most outbreaks were airborne and made prevention nearly impossible.

John believed otherwise, noticing that areas of outbreak were closer to watery areas. He knew it wasn’t miasma, but rather direct contact with fluids. Therefore, he reasoned that Cholera could be stopped.

He found the first reported cases of  the infection, and identified the areas of outbreak, looking for proof of the disease transmission. He interviewed every Doctor, every infected person and/or healthy household. Endless days and nights were spent running across the city tracking down clues. He kept precise records that filled rooms.

Many times he presented his evidence, that showed increased infection rates around water. Yet the medical community refused to believe him. Their objection was: “Why did the water, which was healthy, turn unhealthy now?”. When, at last, he was invited to join a Cholera Outbreak Committee, he showed them his findings. They connected his theory to the missing information, finding it’s origin.

The first infected person was a newborn girl less than a year old, who died two days before the first outbreak. Her mother threw her diapers into a garbage pit at the bottom of the house. The “cesspit” cracked, and seeped into the local well, proving John Snow’s theory correct.

His discoveries became the foundation for preventative healthcare. It led to the redevelopment of sewage systems in cities all across Europe and beyond. Thankfully, preventing untold epidemics. He was an ordinary man. An Everyday Hero, who, armed only with his intelligence, and fine record keeping, conquered a terrible disease.

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