Monthly Archives: July 2013

John Snow- Physician (1813-1858)

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Image: cartodp.com

By Joe Gardener

There’s an old water pump on Broadwick Street in London’s West-End that you’d probably quite rightly walk by without a second thought if you didn’t know of its significance.  After all, there are rusty old relics like that all over London, aren’t there?

In actuality, the pump is one of the most significant mementos of modern medicine, and it isn’t actually as old as it looks either, it’s a replica.

In the Summer of 1854 cholera was rife in London, killing over five hundred residents of the Central region within two weeks and continuing to spread.  Prominent physicians of the day immediately linked the disease to the ‘Miasma Theory’ that noxious gases in the air were the cause of the disease (Miasma being the Greek word for pollution).

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Local physician John Snow, who was already one of the pioneering doctors in the field of anaesthesia, was sceptical towards the Miasma Theory.  However, with no immediate evidence to the contrary (Louis Pasteur’s ‘Germ Theory’ of disease having yet to be developed), Snow would have had to undertake a little local detective work of his own in order to deduce the real cause of the outbreak.  He did just that.  Through conversations with Soho residents, Snow successfully traced the cholera outbreak to an old water pump on Broadwick Street (then known as Broad Street).

While his closer studies of the water from the pump failed to conclude it as the source of cholera, his work nonetheless convinced locals who subsequently removed the pump’s handle.  A dot map that Snow drew up helped his cause; the map displayed all of the cholera cases in the area as clusters of dots atop the location in which they occurred, with the heaviest clusters centreed around the pump. 

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Image: mapsmaniac.com

Ultimately, it has never been completely concluded that pump was the direct cause of the outbreak because although cases rapidly declined after its removal, many residents had already begun to leave the area through fear of cholera.  However, it is to this day widely assumed that John Snow’s water pump was indeed the cause.  Later research found that the pump was placed in close proximity to an old, dilapidated cesspit which had begun to leak faecal bacteria due to neglect.   Furthermore, the nappies of a baby who had contracted cholera from another source had also been disposed there.

Like all thwarted criminals, the pump was ultimately removed.  Snow went on to refer to the Soho cholera outbreak as “the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in this kingdom.”

The pump which currently stands on Broadwick Street is a replica of John Snow’s pump, complete with a plaque commemorating the physician’s hand in ending the outbreak.  Thankfully, it doesn’t function.

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Image: ph.ucla.edu

The nearby Samuel Smith’s public house was eventually renamed The John Snow in his honour and local legend even tells of a resident ghost; that of a sickly looking man with red eyes and a sallow face who sits in the darkest corner of the pub.  A former victim of the outbreak or simply a regular who’s had a bit too much?

 John Snow was born in York in 1815 to William and Frances Snow and from the age of 14 studied in Newcastle, where he first encountered cholera through a severe and fatal outbreak in the nearby town of Sunderland.  In 1837 he moved to London where he lived on Frith Street, a short walk from the cholera water pump.  He lived as a teetotal and vegetarian for much of his life and never married.  John Snow died in 1858 from a stroke at the age of 45.

Every year, the John Snow Society remove and replace a water pump handle to symbolise the continuing struggles faced in the study of public health.

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Categories: 19th Century, Medicine Men | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

1819 painting by Alfred Clint. Collection: NPG. Image: poetry foundation

By Joe Gardner

Being a Londoner, I have walked passed a fair few blue plaques in my time.  Dickens delivered his articles to this address.  John Keats practiced medicine here.  Peter Cook used the toilet of this restaurant on route to a gig.  But my runaway favourite adorns the wall of a beautiful little townhouse – now an Italian bistro – on the corner of Poland Street in Soho.

Image: plaques of London

Image: plaques of London

You have to be careful with blue plaques; often the historical celebrity you’re reading about ‘Lived in a house on this site’, so the place they resided is as dead as they are (I’d walked past what I long assumed to be Mozart’s house many a time before this damning realisation), or they ‘Stayed here’ or ‘Visited here’ etc.  That’s why I love the little house on Poland Street so much:  ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley; 1792-1822; Poet; Lived Here.’  It is his home, as it was (Italian restaurant aside).  He slept under that roof, he gazed from those windows.  Whenever I pass it on my idle wanderings I can picture the young Romantic Poet seated by his window, fretting over a draft or nipping out the front door in pursuit of a much needed beverage.  That’s what history does to people; it comes alive as it makes itself known.

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London Remembers.com

The house on the corner of Poland Street, Soho. Image: London Remembers.com

I’m fascinated by Shelley.On top of his staunch vegetarianism, his ahead-of-the-times socialist philosophies and the fact that he wrote Ozymandias; the greatest short poem ever penned, Shelley was a remarkably interesting being in his own right.  Much like his aforementioned contemporary Keats, much of Shelley’s poetry had roots in a more scientific background.  Obsessed with all things science thanks in large part to his astrology and magnetism lessons at school, as a boy he’d conduct myriad experiments that would often end in explosions.  If that’s not incredible enough, as he grew older he developed an interest in what he referred to as the ‘Occult Sciences’; he began experimenting with gunpowder and electricity, often even using his own body as a conductor of electrical current.  Contemporaries noted that his dwellings were frequently cluttered with science and astronomy apparatus.  It is understood that Shelley was even concerned with theories of life on other planets and, perhaps most interestingly, galvanism and bodily reanimation.  I find it incredible that someone as synonymous with dusty old poetry was so eccentric and pioneering in a completely different field of study, as a hobby.

You’d be forgiven for being put in mind of a different literary man nonetheless associated with the name Shelley, as it is increasingly believed that Mary Shelley’s sci-fi anti-hero Victor Frankenstein was at least partially inspired by her husband’s obsession with electro-magnetics (the philosopher Erasmus Darwin serves as the main inspiration for the character).  It is well known that the premise of Frankenstein was born out of both a nightmare of Mary’s and a friendly ghost story contest proposed by Lord Byron, which in turn ultimately became the classic horror novel.  But the immortal image of the twisted young obsessive, darting about his rooms at Ingolstadt wielding scientific equipment and provoking electrical sparks around him was doubtlessly one that wife Mary was well familiar with.  In short, the most infamous monster story from Western fiction is quite possibly the end result of a wife cheekily turning her frustration at her husband’s manic geekery into something more productive. 

It is also worth noting that the sub-heading of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, which of course ties in strongly with Percy Shelley’s epic poem Prometheus Unbound; the titular ancient Greek titan was punished by Zeus for giving humanity the secret of fire and such themes clearly translate from Shelley’s poetic retelling to his wife’s famous novel; the mortal man wielding divine power undeservedly.  Thus I’d like to believe that Percy Bysshe Shelley had more of a hand in the inception of Frankenstein than is commonly surmised.

The reason for my fondness for Shelley is simple; as well as my admiration for his then radical values, being myself someone who continually divides his time between writing literature and geeking up on science and science fiction, I have a century-spanning affiliation with the man.  So whenever I pass that little house with the blue plaque I always give a polite nod and a smile back through time to my favourite literary neighbour.

 

Categories: 19th Century, Heroes | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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