Jun
17
2009

A Snow day in June! Or, “Get your lips off that thing, kid!”

John Snow: Eats only vegetables, drinks only boiled water... dies of a stroke at age 41. Nuts.
John Snow: Eats only vegetables, drinks only boiled water... dies of a stroke at age 41. Nuts.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Here we are again, languishing in the long hours of June 17, enjoying a leisurely Snow day. A John Snow day.

Wait, you say, fractionally raising your heads from your overstuffed couches and baths full of tepid water. Didn’t John Snow actually die in June? And, like, didn’t he die on June 16, not on the 17th?

Well, yes, June 16, 1858, was in fact the day John Snow died. But I only just made up Snow day, and I wasn’t paying attention yesterday. Plus, do y’all even know who John Snow was?

Oh, John Snow was the most marvelous man! He drugged queen Victoria! He deprived thirsty communities of pump handles! He saved London from tiny invisible monsters! Oh, what a man!

John Snow was the sort of guy that posthumously gets the Cleverboots Award for Correct Thinking. Sort of like how I will surely be recognized with a Cleverboots Award years after I die, for how strikingly accurate my public ranting on the subjects of invisible lasers, lizard people, and “stay away from me, wizards!” will prove to be.

Snow was one of the first people to study the used of ether and chloroform as anesthetics. Which is to say, people had used those compounds as anesthesia before, but Snow calculated doses that would leave you somewhere between horrible pain and drugged to death. That was important. Everybody’s favorite queen of England (Victoria, duh) had Snow personally administer her anesthesia during the births of her eighth and ninth children. Once people saw Victoria doing it, everybody wanted in on anesthesia.

Snow’s greatest achievement, perhaps, came in an episode I like to call “Johnny Snow vs. Cholera.”

See, in the middle of 19th century in London, people were sort of split into three groups. There was the “Cholera is caused by poisonous gases” group. Most everybody thought that theory was the best, and it was called the “miasma theory.” There was also the “Cholera is caused by something tiny or invisible in water” group. This was pretty much what we call “germ theory,” and most everybody was all, “Germs? That’s stupid. Check your head!” And, finally, there was the “Hey, we’re actually dying of cholera over here” group, and most everybody thought they were gross.

But not John Snow! Instead of arguing and making up theories based on what seemed reasonable, he actually went out and looked at stuff. Gasp!

Without knowing for certain exactly how cholera was being transmitted (germs or miasma, or whatever), Snow began to record who in London was getting the disease, and he plotted cases on city street maps. He saw clusters of the disease in certain areas of the map, and so he looked for common elements. In the case of one outbreak, Snow realized that the majority of infected people were getting their water from one of two water companies, both of which were pulling water from a dirty (read: full of sewage) section of the Thames river. In another outbreak, Snow found that most of the victims of the disease were getting their water from a particular public pump. When John Snow had the handle of the pump removed, so that nobody could get water from anymore, the outbreak ended.

Snow’s discoveries from studying the cholera outbreaks added to the evidence for germ theory, and, perhaps more importantly, constituted a huge stride forward in the science of epidemiology. Snow wasn’t just figuring out how to cure diseases, he was tracking down where they start, and learning about how they move through populations. These are the same basic principles behind the actions health organizations still take today when dealing with outbreaks in the much larger population pools (or pool) of the 21st century.

It’s pretty interesting stuff. Check out this Snow-stravaganza: UCLA’s comprehensive page on John Snow and the cholera outbreaks.

Now enjoy what’s left of your Snow day.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

And if you think that story sounds cool, you should pick up Steven Johnson's book, "The Ghost Map."

Or at least check out the companion website.

But the book is brilliant. A really good read.

posted on Thu, 06/18/2009 - 9:59am
Britney Spearz was here.'s picture
Britney Spearz was here. says:

we should have snow days all the time...aka....NO SCHOOL EVER!!!!!!!!!!!

posted on Fri, 07/31/2009 - 7:31pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

o my that is werd. how could that hapen if he onaly eat vegetables and only drank hot water?

posted on Thu, 11/18/2010 - 3:25pm

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