Removing the Pump Handle

John Snow was born in 1813 in York, England. As a child, he lived in a community rife with unsanitary conditions. Coming from a family of nine children, it’s remarkable that John was able to reach the education level he achieved, ultimately becoming a doctor.

At age 14, John worked as a medical apprentice. Five years later, he gained his first experience with cholera, which would lead to one of his medical breakthroughs. At age 23, he enrolled in medical school, perhaps one of the most experienced students of his time. He finished his degree at age 31.

Prior to his graduation, he became interested in anesthesia. After a 15-year-old patient died from minor surgery, Dr. Snow began a study of proper dosages of anesthetics. He designed a mask to administer the proper dosage of chloroform for patients undergoing surgery. His procedure was considered unethical and discouraged by the Church of England until Queen Victoria asked him to administer it during the birth of one of her eight children.

Cholera was a consistent problem in England at the time and was widely believed to be caused by bad air. The discovery of germs as a disease agent was not yet known. Dr. Snow doubted the theory of bad air and was able to prove that cholera was the result of polluted water. In spite of his proof, public health officials denied that water was the cause of cholera. So Dr. Snow forcibly removed the pump handle so that people could not get their water from a polluted source. It took more than 10 years for his results to be accepted. Today in commemoration of Dr. Snow’s discovery, a pump handle at the site is removed and replaced to signify ongoing public health concerns.

Dr. Snow is considered one of the founders of the study of epidemiology. A vegetarian at the age of 17, Dr. Snow later became a vegan. At the age of 45, he had a stroke and died six days later. He was never married.

Dr. Snow made two major medical breakthroughs in his short life. Coming from an impoverished childhood, he had a practical sense of medicine that many of his counterparts did not. Hidden heroes are often able to achieve greatness not in spite of their impoverished background, but because of it. Dr. Snow had a sense of medicine from his experience growing up.

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“In the nineteenth century, cholera struck the most modern, prosperous cities in the world, killing rich and poor alike, from Paris and London to New York City and New Orleans. In 1836, it felled King Charles X in Italy; in 1849, President James Polk in New Orleans; in 1893, the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg.” – Sonia Shah

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