The Broad Street pump

THE JOHN SNOW pub in the background is a clue to the importance of this Soho pump with no handle, which I walked past for years before first noticing. It’s in Broadwick Street W1.

Dr Snow first made the connection between cholera and water contaminated by sewage, using statistical studies to prove the link. Before that, it was assumed the disease was air-borne. In 1854, after tracing a cholera outbreak that killed 500 people to the water here, Snow had the pump handle removed to stop people drinking from it.

A local doctor wrote later: Dr Snow… gave it as his opinion that the pump in Broad Street, and that pump alone, was the cause of all the pestilence. He was not believed – not a member of his own profession, not an individual in the parish believed that Snow was right. But the pump was closed nevertheless and the plague was stayed.”

More that 10,738 Londoners died of cholera this same year, so this was a major breakthrough. One of the clues that lead Dr Snow to the truth was that some victims had travelled across London to use this particular pump, preferring its taste to their local water. You wonder what exactly the taste was, given that the problem was a nearby cesspool that was leaking sewage into the water supply. Cesspools were used before homes had access to a mains sewer, being filled with waste until emptied.

Samuel Pepys had a problem with a neighbour’s cesspool in October 1660: “Going down to my cellar… I find that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar.” It took five days for the pit to be emptied. Reading his diaries, you certainly gain a greater appreciation of the wonders of modern plumbing and of the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette who built London’s sewers in 1875.

This area was then called Broad Street but was later renamed Broadwick Street. A house nearby was the birthplace in 1757 and childhood home of poet William Blake.

Snow was born in 1813 and died in 1858, spending most of his adult life from the age of 17 as a vegetarian (later a vegan) and non-drinker. Although he started to take wine (and eat meat) after a health scare in 1840, he only ever drank boiled water. Given that London’s main water supply into the 19th century was the Thames, basically an open sewer*, most people drank weak beer, gin or wine to quench their thirst.

While Snow’s death was due to a stroke, the underlying cause was probably a habit of self-experimenting with ether, chloroform and other anaesthetics, leading to kidney failure. Besides his work on epidemiology, of which he is considered a founding father, he also did early work on pain relief. By giving chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of her last two children (Leopold, her eighth, in 1850 and Beatrice in 1857), he helped popularise the science of anaesthesia.

Secret London: Drinking Fountains

Dr John Snow

*Some things never change: Walliams given Thames sewage warning


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