John Snow and cholera: how myth helped secure his place in history

Sandra Hempel

This article originally appeared on the OUPblog on 6 May 2013:

The high-profile marking of John Snow’s bicentenary on the fifteenth of March would have surprised the great man. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the WellcomeTrust, and The Lancet were among the august UK organisations to honour him with events including an exhibition, three days of seminars, and a gala dinner. The physician was also celebrated in the United States where he has a large fan base.

By the time of his death, on 16 June 1858 at the age of 45, Snow was convinced beyond doubt that his theory on the mode of transmission of epidemic cholera was correct but had little expectation that any credit would accrue to him. His friend, the Soho curate Henry Whitehead, said Snow predicted that he might not live to see the day when great cholera outbreaks were in the past — which was true — and also that his name would be forgotten when that day came, which was not. On the contrary, he is now widely regarded as the father of the science of epidemiology, with his life and work the subject of countless books, articles and web pages, while 200 years after his birth his legacy remains the focus of lively academic debate.

M0009238 John Snow, 1856.
John Snow, 1856. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK.

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