1994 Dr Spence Galbraith: Dr John Snow – Early Life and Later Triumphs

Professor Paul Fine, the Pumphandle President, welcomed members and non-members alike to an overflowing Manson theatre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on Thursday 8th September 1994 to commemorate the 140th anniversary of John Snow’s removal of the pump handle.

He introduced the speaker, Dr Spence Galbraith, who founded the Epidemiological Research laboratory (later CDSC) of which he was the director for a decade. Dr Galbraith gave a scintillating lecture entitled “Dr John Snow – Early Life and Later Triumphs. An exploration of Snow’s work from the epidemiological perspective”, a talk based on his original researches around the country.

Dr Galbraith had obtained photographs of Snow’s birth certificate and gravestone thus confirming at last the correct date of Snow’s birth. In fact, Snow was born on 15th March 1813 in York, near the site of the Rowntrees chocolate factory. After living on a farm near York during his childhood, he was apprenticed to a surgeon in Newcastle, where he attended tuition at Bell’s Court, the doorway of which is now incorporated into the structure of Newcastle Medical School. Whilst in Newcastle, Snow first encountered cholera which had spread from Sunderland in 1831/32. Later he was to write graphically about the impact of cholera in the coal pits at Killingworth, where he may have met Robert and George Stevenson of railway fame.

After spells in County Durham and Pateley Bridge, where he developed his taste for nature walks and teetotalism, Snow moved to London. He collected qualifications (LRCS May 1838, LSA October 1838, MB 1843, MD 1844), contracted nephritis (for which he was treated by Richard Bright), and started giving anaesthetics, mainly at St George’s Hospital. He continued his interest in cholera, writing very accurately about the transmission of the infection in 1849, and becoming involved in the Golden Square outbreak in 1854. The story is too well known to need repeating but Dr Galbraith pointed out how Snow founded “boot leather” epidemiology by actually visiting the area, drawing a map, using a questionnaire and conducting retrospective etiological study. It is intriguing that no mention is made of the outbreak in Snow’s own casebooks for the period, nor is there any mention of his famous visit to the local vestry records. He later went on to show by use of a cohort study that the incidence of cholera was ten-fold higher in households supplied by one water company (the Vauxhall and Southwark) as compared to those supplied by another (the Lambeth), the water extraction point of the former being close to a major sewer.

Snow became president of the Medical Society of London in 1855 and, according to his memorial, died on June 16th 1858.

Dr Ros Stanwell-Smith proposed the vote of thanks and presented Dr Galbraith with a silver pump tie pin on behalf of the Society. Professor Fine then removed the handle of the Society’s pump, thus declaring the meeting over. Many of the members then repaired to the John Snow public house in Soho for a convivial member’s evening, with refreshments courtesy of the Open University Press, who were promoting “The Epidemiological Imagination”, a recently published book by Professor John Ashton, a member of the Society, which features a section on Snow.