Always Read the Plaque: John Snow and the Broad Street Pump

I really enjoy reading historical plaques. They are a fascinating way of learning local history, embedded in the built landscape. At the very least, they’re an interesting insight into the history that locals are invested in commemorating.

On my recent trip to the United Kingdom, I had the pleasure of being introduced to one of the people who work at the historic Fairfax House in York (sadly, closed for cleaning while I was in the city). However, he recommended I visit one little York monument in particular, and I’m so glad I followed his advice because it commemorates a fascinating event in the history of medicine in a very evocative way. Aside from the little round blue York Civic Trust Plaque and an explanatory interpretive panel, there was this simple monument:

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John Snow was born in York (hence, why this monument is in York and not in London) but became known later in life for 1) being the anesthetist to Queen Victoria when she first started using anesthetics during childbirth and 2) proving to health professionals and the public that cholera was waterborne. During an epidemic of the disease in London in the 1850s, he made a map of where all of the dead had once lived, and discovered that what they had in common was that they all drank water from the same pump. The water from the Broad Street pump actually had a reputation for being very clear and sweet tasting, so it was very counter-intuitive that it was the cause of the outbreak, particularly as the miasma theory of disease was the dominant way of explaining how maladies spread. By removing the pump handle, he stopped the spread of the cholera epidemic. That event is what is commemorated with this simple statue.

If you would like to know more about John Snow stopping illness in its tracks and how to shift the mindsets of people when it comes to health issues, definitely read Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map: the Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. And as always, when you encounter them, read the plaque.

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