In the late 1840s John Snow, a physician working in one of the poorest districts of London, watched helplessly as dozens of his patients succumbed to cholera. In 1854, working against the grain of contemporary medical thought, he used pioneering medical detective work to argue that the disease was transmitted by polluted water from a communal pump.
Ever since his reappearance as a founding father of epidemiology and public health, Snow and his work on cholera have been both troublesome and enormously useful for historians of science & medicine. Studies of Snow have complicated and enriched our understanding of nineteenth-century British history, taking us to the places where medicine collided with science, politics and culture. In this talk I'll be asking how we should understand his life and his ideas – ideas that should, it seems to many modern observers, have been far more influential than they actually were.
But Snow’s London also witnessed the adventures of Karl Marx, Giacomo Casanova, Oscar Wilde, and thousands of poor immigrants seeking a new life for themselves. So as we walk in the footsteps of Snow – and some less savoury characters – I’ll be telling a story of dirt and disease, politics and revolution in the grubby heart of Victorian London.
Richard Barnett is a writer and broadcaster on the cultural history of medicine, and a poet. He received one of the first Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellowships, and teaches at Pembroke College, Cambridge. His first book,Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and his The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, was described in the Observer as 'superbly lucid and erudite'. His latest book, Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles & Practice of Nineteenth-Century Medicine, is out now. He has made many appearances on British and American TV & radio, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Find him online at richardbarnettwriter.com.