John Snow and the Cholera Epidemic of 1854
audiobook (Unabridged) ∣ The History of the Outbreak and Its Impact on Public Health Measures
By Charles River Editors
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Plague and pestilence have both fascinated and terrified humanity from the very beginning. Societies and individuals have struggled to make sense of them, and more importantly they've often struggled to avoid them. Before the scientific age, people had no knowledge of the microbiological agents – unseen bacteria and viruses – which afflicted them, and thus the maladies were often ascribed to wrathful supernatural forces. Even when advances in knowledge posited natural causes for epidemics and pandemics, medicine struggled to deal with them, and for hundreds of years religion continued to work hand-in-hand with medicine.
In the case of cholera, once among the most dreaded diseases, a breakthrough in Victorian England occurred in the mid-19th century during one of several epidemics to assault the island. In that instance, an unassuming physician named John Snow was able to trace the environmental component in which cholera was carried. He accomplished this in large part through a painstaking map cross-referencing location and specific cases of infection within a small area of London. Eventually, he narrowed the source down to a single manual water pump in the midst of the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Soho.
At the time, however, in the face of resistance launched by more powerful and pedigreed members of the medical profession, Snow was rewarded with criticism for not successfully revealing the entirety of the disease's inner mechanics. It was only over the course of several decades that Snow was able to persuade the medical community at large of the disease's source, and the British successfully established policies that helped prevent future outbreaks. Ironically, Snow eventually gained membership in Britain's high circle of elite medical practitioners, but it was not his work on cholera that initially propelled him to global fame.