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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Happy Birthday Dr John Snow. We salute you.

If you had to pay £200 to publish a book that only brought in an income of £3.50, you might feel something of a failure.  

Fortunately for the world, one characteristic of confident people is that they don’t let failure hold them back.  

Dr John Snow, who was born 200 years ago on 15 March 1813, must have been such a man. He was the son of a Yorkshire labourer but was able to ‘better himself’ through his apprenticeship to a surgeon.  He also became the author of the ‘failed’ book.

Snow mistrusted the prevailing theory that cholera was an airborne disease, caused by bad air or ‘miasma’, and he stuck to his guns. He believed it was spread through impure water.

However, his famous book, ‘On the Mode of Communication of Cholera’ was widely dismissed by the learned journals of the day. "There is, in our view, an entire failure of proof that the occurrence of any one case could be clearly and unambiguously assigned to water" one reviewer noted.  

When Dr Snow published his book in 1849 he was still five years short of getting the vital proof.  His chance came with an outbreak of the deadly disease in the London district of Soho, when 500 people lost their lives.  Mapping the deaths showed a cluster round a water pump; he insisted the handle was removed and the deaths dwindled.

Dr Snow's map showing cholera cases clustered around the Broad Street pump, Soho
It seems the Soho outbreak had been caused by a mother washing her sick baby’s soiled nappy:  the contaminated water is thought to have seeped into the drinking supply. The woman’s chore was an everyday action which many of us might have unwittingly carried out.  

Perhaps, 200 years later, we need to catch some of Dr Snow’s confidence. Confidence that we can overcome the uneven distribution of decent sanitation in our world. Confidence in the belief that a clean, hygienic toilet is not just a comfortable luxury but a vital bit of kit that keeps us healthy. Confidence that it is therefore our right and duty to demand good sanitation for everyone, everywhere.  

This is the spirit which World Water Day, 22 March, seeks to harness, and in homage to Dr John Snow may we all do whatever we can (like twinning a toilet perhaps?) to bring about universal decent sanitation.

Pic: Ceridwen

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