Dr. John Snow was born on March 15, 1813, at his parents' modest home on North Street, York, England. He was the oldest child (of 9) born to William Snow and his wife, Frances ("Fanny") Empson Snow. William Snow was a laborer, most likely a collier (coal loader), and Fanny Empson was known to be the illegitimate first daughter of John Empson and Mary Askham, whom he later married, thus recognizing Frances. William and Mary (Empson) Snow were married on May 24, 1812, at All Saints Anglican Church, Huntington, Yorkshire, England. 
John's early life was thus spent in poverty. He did attend school in York, however. There, he must have shown exceptional scholarship and a keen interest in medicine and biology for, at just 14 years old, he was apprenticed to Dr. William Hardcastle, a surgeon in Newcastle upon Tyne, 87 miles from York. It was with Dr. Hardcastle that John Snow first encountered cholera, which entered Newcastle via the seaport of Sunderland in 1831, causing a dreadful epidemic, especially among the working classes.
From 1833 to 1836, John Snow worked as an assistant to a colliery (coal mine) surgeon, first in Burnopfield, County Durham, and then in Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire. In October 1836 he enrolled at the Hunterian school of medicine on Great Windmill Street, London. The next year he began work at Westminster Hospital, London. By May 1838 he had been admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Snow graduated from London University's School of Medicine in December 1844 and was finally admitted to the Royal College of Physicians in 1850. In the same year he became one of the founding members of the Epidemiological Society of London, organized in response to the 1849 cholera outbreak there.
Sometimes hailed as the "Father of Modern Anesthesiology," John Snow was among the first physicians to calculate accurate dosages for the use of chloroform and ether as surgical anesthetics, letting surgical and obstetric patients undergo major, lengthy procedures without significant pain or distress. He personally designed an apparatus to administer ether safely to patients as well as a mask used when chloroform was called for. He is known to have supervised Queen Victoria's successful chloroform-assisted births for at least two of her nine children in the 1850s, helping to gain public acceptance of obstetric anesthesia. In 1847, he published, "On the Inhalation of the Vapor of Ether." This was followed by "On Chloroform and other Anaesthetics," a longer, more-detailed treatise, published after his death in 1858.
During the 1854 Broad Street Cholera epidemic, John Snow again made medical history by, 10 years before Louis Pasteur's isolation of microscopic germs, charting the incidence and spread of the epidemic and noting that a specific water pump, on Broad Street, was at the center of the outbreak. He went on to charge two London water companies with taking Thames River water downstream from local sewer outlets and mixing it with fresh water before it reached the pump. While, in the absence of germ theory, he could not pinpoint this sewage-to-drinking water as the "cause" of the disease, his conclusions led to the disabling of the pump and the halt of the epidemic. His study was a major event in the history of public health. It is still considered the first documented case in the science of epidemiology.
Despite John Snow's success in stopping the 1854 epidemic, London's establishment refused to accept that there was a causal relationship between sewage, drinking water and cholera. It was only in 1866, after Pasteur had published his findings, that William Farr, who had loudly opposed John Snow, connected a new cholera outbreak to unsanitary water and ordered the boiling of all drinking water immediately. The new epidemic stopped, thus vindicating Snow's earlier research.
Having grown up amidst the daily alcohol-fueled hardships of the working class as a youngster, John Snow was a life-long advocate of the Temperance Movement and for a number of years he was a strict vegetarian. He did resume occasional meat consumption and the drinking of claret (red wine) after being diagnosed with anemia in his 40's. He never married and between 1852 and 1858 lived on Sackville Street in London. On June 10, 1858, he suffered a stroke while working at his London office and never recovered, dying on June 16. He is buried at Brompton Cemetery, London, England.
Dr. John Snow's impact on medicine and modern public health practices should not be underestimated, despite the problems he encountered during his lifetime, especially in the absence of modern germ theories. A plaque on London's Broadwick St. (Broad Street was renamed) commemorates his 1854 epidemiology study; a "John Snow Society," was founded in 1993 by British physicians. It meets annually to toast his memory. In 2001 a "John Snow College" was founded on the University of Durham's Queen's Campus in Stockton-On-Tees, England. In a March 2003 poll in England's Hospital Magazine, John Snow was voted the greatest physician of all time by his peers. Hippocrates (460-370 AD) came in second.
See Footnotes for source references.
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