The life of John Snow was the subject of the 2016 Ether Day talk at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. But who was the man now best remembered for the Broad Street pump handle and Cholera and giving chloroform to Queen Victoria on the birth of prince Leopold?
John Snow was born in York on 13 March 1813. His parents were labourers, living in Micklegate Ward, an area near the river, which was deemed poor and unsanitary even then. He was the eldest of nine children, but his parents were adamant that all children should receive an education in one of the many ‘public’ school, meaning schools run by public organisations for the education of the poorer children. At the age of of 14, Snow left school and started an apprenticeship. Through a connection of his maternal uncle, Charles Empson, who most likely also sponsored him financially, an agreement was reached with the apothecary-surgeon William Hardcastle in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was an unusual choice, as apothecary apprentices were normally sons of the middle classes.
There are no records of his training, but he would have spent his day cleaning the shop for his master, filling prescriptions and administering treatment for those patients who could not pay the master’s fees. Since Hardcastle was also a founding father of the new medical school in Newcastle and was involved with the Newcastle Infirmary, John Snow was able to attend medical courses at the new school and ‘walk the wards’. He also started to develop an interest in scientific research.
After his apprenticeship, he left for Burnop Fields, a village southwest of Newcastle, to become assistant to a John Watson, an old fashioned “pre-1815 medical man”. His new employer therefore lacked the formal training of his new assistant and clashes over how to best conduct a surgery erupted from day one.
So a year later, he moved to Pateley Bridge, a small market town in the Yorkshire Dales to work for the more progressive John Warburton. Snow was integrated into Warburton’s medical team and was responsible for the patients on the surrounding parishes. This was a place he very much appreciated, but Warburton already had a successor in his own son, so Snow decided to leave after two years, and his destination were the London medical schools.
He walked all the way from Yorkshire to London since he had always liked long walks, but he first turned to Liverpool, probably to meet some friends
he had met earlier. He then crossed Wales, north to south, and stopped in Bath before heading east to London. In Bath, he was most likely visited his uncle Charles Empson, and some of the money for his further medical training must have been granted during this visit as he wouldn’t have been able to save all he needed in his previous positions.
Four weeks later he reached London and of all medical schools available, his choice was the Hunterian School of Medicine, which offered a full complement of lecture course and dissecting with an option to ‘walk the wards’ in the near University Hospital or Westminster Hospital for £34 fee (1836).
Vinten-Johansen, Peter, et al. 2003. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snow, S. J. 2008. “John Snow: the making of a hero?” The Lancet 372, n. 9632: 22-23.
To cite this post : Iris Millis, “John Snow, the first English anaesthetist. Part 1 – Beginnings and the way to London”, Museum Highlights (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), October 18th, 2016.
Iris Millis is currently a museum officer at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. She has previously worked for the Anaesthesia Museum and Bodyworlds. She is member of the History of Anaesthesia Society and the John Snow Society. Follow her on Twitter, @historical_iris.