Health Secretary will honour tenacity of cholera pioneer

16 June 2008

Health secretary Alan Johnson will, on Monday, lead a tribute to the pioneering scientist who discovered that water, not air, conveys cholera, and who followed up his theory with controversial direct action in the heart of epidemic-gripped Victorian London.

Anaesthetist John Snow identified, using a now-celebrated innovative mapping method, the pattern of cholera deaths in the capital, subsequently disabling a water pump in Soho which he believed, correctly, to have harboured cholera.

The tribute by Alan Johnson is being staged jointly by the charity WaterAid and the Royal Society of Chemistry, on the 150th anniversary of Snow's death at the age of 45.

The cabinet minister will be joined by news anchorman Jon Snow and others bearing the same surname for the celebration at the John Snow pub in Soho, which stands on the spot where the deadly water pump poisoned the population before its handle was removed at the direction of Snow.

Water will be served to all guests wishing to honour the man who played an historic role in the history of clean water for the masses.

WaterAid's chair, Jeremy Pelczer: "WaterAid is keen to celebrate the life of Doctor Snow and his incredible foresight and courage in challenging the perceived thinking on cholera and for advocating clean water and better sanitation in London and the UK. The difference that Snow's discovery made to public health in the UK was immense; it's about time the rest of the world started to benefit from Snow's work, given that 5,000 children die every day in developing countries from water-related diseases like cholera."

President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Prof Jim Feast said today: "Ironically, John Snow was teetotal.

"But I have little doubt that his principle of abstention would not have prevented him enjoying the gesture of so many Snows getting together in a pub to remember and mark his personal contribution to world health."

During the event in Broadwick Street the secretary of state will unveil a Royal Society of Chemistry Chemical Landmark plaque, which will later be fixed to the external wall of the pub, today a much-frequented watering hole for the district's creative and media community.

RSC Chemical Landmark plaques are used to mark locations at which remarkable scientific achievements have been undertaken.

John Snow had become well known to the medical establishment after administering chloroform to Queen Victoria in 1853 during childbirth. He turned to cholera in 1854 when it was devastating London and other cities through fetid water, although it was generally believed at the time that it was air-borne, not water-borne.

Plotting deaths on a map of central London it became clear to Snow that the seat of the epidemic was in Soho's Broad Street, as it was then known. Snow ensured that the pump was investigated and after seeing the filth beneath it he ordered that the handle be removed, thus ending the outbreak.

"Another irony for a non-drinker," said Jim Feast, "was that near the pump stood a brewery and Snow noted that those who drank beer instead of water, as was often the custom, were uncontaminated, demonstrating that the process of brewing purified the liquid."

WaterAid and the RSC agreed to set up the celebration of Snow's work to underline the reality that while cholera has long since vanished from Europe, thanks to his work, it remains a scourge in many parts of the globe, such as Africa and Asia.

WaterAid works in, and for, such regions, to provide clean water. Many Royal Society of Chemistry members work in waste management and the water industry.

A major theme for the RSC in the next year is water and, as a recent report by the society demonstrated, its provision and quality are to be of massive national and international importance in future decades as populations rise and climate change takes its effect. 

Rt. Hon Alan Johnson, MP, Secretary of State for Health, will unveil a plaque to the memory of John Snow at the John Snow pub, Broadwick Street, Soho, on Monday 16 June at 11.00am. Earlier, at 10.45am there will be a photo-opportunity outside the pub involving Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News and other guests bearing the name Snow.

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