John Snow was born on March 15, 1813 in a house on North Street in York (center left), England, the first of nine children of William Snow (1783-1846) and Francis Snow (Askham) (1789-1860). His family lived on North Street, alongside the River Ouse which, prior to the advent of the railways in the late 1830s, was one of the main thoroughfares for the dispatch of heavy goods and materials to and from York. His neighborhood in North Street was among the poorer regions of York, being always at risk of flooding from the Ouse River, and considered one of the worst drained areas in the city. At the time of Snow's birth, and during most of his early childhood, his father worked as a laborer in a coal yard, one of many poorer, unskilled, manual workers in the city. Barges on the River Ouse brought coal to the yard, situated adjacent to the family home.
Religion was a central part of the Snow family life. They attended York's All Saints North Street, an Anglican church, and the children were all baptized there, including John Snow. His baptismal entry, presented below, shows him being born on 15th March as John, son of William and Francis Snow of North Street. His father was listed as a laborer. Towards the end of life, both parents would request being buried at the All Saints North Street, even though they had since moved away from York.
Usually the children of poor families left home to earn their own livings as soon as possible. Snow's parents, however, seem to have been determined to give their offspring whatever opportunities they could afford in order to better themselves.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS
John Snow had five brothers and three sisters, born every two years. His was the first birth in 1813.
William (1815-?) ran a temperance hotel in York and was a tailor and outfitter.
Charles (1817-?) remained unknown, although likely worked at home with his father.
Robert (1819-85/86) became Manager of Garforth Colliery (a coal mine) near Leeds (1856 map, lower right -- Garforth is just to the east of Leeds). He was married and had at least four children.
Thomas (1821-93) at first was a teacher and then at age 33 entered the clergy, eventually becoming vicar of Underbarrow in Cumbria (1856 map, east of Kendal [upper right]), in the north of England, where he remained until his death. He had married, was widowed and then married again. Like his eldest brother John, Thomas was a strong supporter of the temperance movement and was a teetotaller. He remained close to his brother John, being at his side when he died in 1858. Later he registered John Snow's death.
Mary (1823-1911) and Hannah (1825-1904) set up a School for Ladies at The Mount in York. They had various properties and did will financially, but never married.
Sarah (1827-91) married a farmer and bore six children.
George (1828-30), like many children of this era, died young.
When he was around age 6, John Snow attended a private school in York, termed "common day schools" and intended to educate the poor. Most schools at that time were private, with the exception of Poor Law schools financed by the government or factory schools. While there is no record of his early schooling, likely he attended the Dodsworth School at Bishop Hill in central York, a school that allotted several spaces to All Saints North Street church, where the Snow family were members. The school curriculum during the eight years he attended the school (i.e., 1819-1827) included reading, writing, arithmetic and the Scriptures. He was an industrious pupil and mathematics and natural history were his favorite subjects.
Exactly how his father, a poor laborer, afforded to send his son to a private school remains a mystery, although Dodsworth School was less expensive, intended as an institution to educate the poor. Most historians suggest that money to assist John Snow with his schooling came through John's mother, Frances. She was the sister of Charles Empson (1794-1861), an affluent and well-traveled man who later was a leading figure in Bath (1856 map, upper left) society (Bath is a small city about 200 miles south of York and 100 miles west of London). What suggests otherwise, however, is Charles Empson's long journey, which took him to South America for three years (i.e., 1824-27) when John Snow was 11 years old. At that time, he was not yet a wealthy man. Later, however, Charles Empson probably helped finance aspects of John Snow's London education and the start of his medical practice.
JOHN SNOW'S FATHER
More likely, John Snow's early education was funded by his industrious father. His parents married on May 24, 1812 at All Saint's Church (right) in the Village of Huntington, just north of York. During that time, the father was listed as a laborer with no resources other than a clever mind and ambitious nature. By 1819 (when John Snow was age 6 and ready for school), his father changed his occupation to carman, or driver of horse-drawn vehicles, delivering goods that arrived by river, or possibly distributing supplies to the various warehouses in the area. He saved his money and in 1825 bought a house in Queen Street and then during the 1830s, purchased four more houses and a yard, also in Queen Street. The houses were rented to tenants, bringing additional income to the family. In 1832 when John Snow was 19 and serving his medical apprenticeships, his father's occupation was listed as farmer, possibly because he was tilling small plots of land on Queen Street. He remained in Queen Street until 1841 (John Snow was 28 and already a doctor), when he moved with his wife from York to Rawcliffe and purchased a farm with both arable and pasture land. By then he had eight living children, ranging in age from 14 to 28 years. Five year later in 1846, John Snow's father died at age 63. His mother outlived her husband by 14 years and John Snow by two years, meeting her death in 1860 at age 71.
Snow's parents left a remarkable legacy for a couple that started poor, but eventually experienced great success via their own life and that of their children. Such upward social mobility was extremely rare in nineteenth century British society.
Before going off to London for his formal medical education, John Snow had three apprenticeships with medical practitioners. During early to mid-1800s, only a few organizations were empowered to grant licenses for medical practice in England. Two were universities -- Oxford (1856 map: lower left) and Cambridge (1856 map: upper left) -- to which Snow had no chance of admission. Instead he took the alternative route of being an apprentice with a licensed surgeon and apothecary (another name for a pharmacist), with the anticipation that he one day would pass the licensing test given by the medical group (Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Surgeons) and the pharmacy group (Worshipful Society of Apothecaries).
Snow's apprenticeships began in 1827 and lasted nine years. The locations and years he spent there are shown on the map to the right, in a central region of England. The specific locations in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area (1856 map, center left) are also shown in the map below.
Age 14. At the age of fourteen John finished his early education and was sent to Long Benton, a suburb of Newcastle- upon-Tyne (1840 map, center right) to be apprentice on June 22, 1827 to William Hardcastle, a surgeon-apothecary (the term for what is now known as a general practitioner). John Snow's uncle, Charles Empson, was a friend and confidant of Mr. Hardcastle, listed as both witness at Hardcastle's wedding and executor of his will. Mr. Hardcastle was also the physician for the George Stephenson family, who earlier had lived in nearby Killingworth. Robert Stephenson had attended school in Long Benton and was a good friend of Charles Empson. Likely these friendships lead to Snow's apprenticeship so far away from his home in York. William Hardcastle was an established practitioner of good reputation in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne area who was thirty-one years old at the outset of Snow's apprenticeship.
Source: Map of England & Wales Divided into Counties, Parliamentary Divisions and Dioceses. Shewing the Principal Roads, Railways, Rivers & Canals, &c., &c., Published by S. Lewis & Co., London. c1840. View Lewis' map at: MAPCO: Map And Plan Collection Online
Snow's apprenticeship in Newcastle, which lasted six years, was an important time for him. Not only did it lay the foundations of his medical training but it was also the period in which he developed interests and attitudes which were to be with him for the rest of his life. During the third year of his apprenticeship when he was 17 years old, he became a vegetarian and remained so until age 25 (see diet for details). Snow was a noted swimmer at this time, and apparently could swim longer against the tide of the River Tyne than any of his meat-eating colleagues. During the same period, he also took up the temperance cause (no alcohol), joined the ranks of the total abstinence reformers, and for many years became a powerful advocate of their principles.
While working with William Hardcastle was the central focus of his apprenticeship, Snow also found time to attend classes in a pioneering venture that lead to the establishment of a modern medical school.
First Encounter with Cholera
In 1831-32 when John Snow was 18 years old, cholera first appeared in Newcastle. Mr. Hardcastle sent Snow in 1831 to provide medical assistance in Killingworth where the miners from the local colliery (a coal mine together with its physical plant) and their families were victims of a cholera outbreak. This experience likely gave him a sense of mission, which continued in his future epidemiological investigations. Years later Snow wrote of this time, "That the men [who work in coal pits] are occasionally attacked whilst at work I know, from having seen them brought up from some of the coal-pits ... after having had profuse discharges from the stomach and bowels, and when fast approaching to a state of collapse."
Age 20. In April 1833, when he had completed his six years of apprenticeship with Mr. Hardcastle, John Snow went to Burnop Field, a village near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and became an assistant to Mr. John Watson, a rural apothecary. Probably his intent was to remain an assistant for a few years, saving money, before going to London for two years of medical education to become a licensed practitioner. Snow remained in Burnop Field for about a year, and then joined a medical practice in Pateley Bridge (1856 map, center right) for eighteen months. He apparently had little in common with Mr. Watson, who relied more on clinical experience rather than book learning, and considered his wages to be very low. He left Burnop Field in April 1834 and returned home to York for a few months. His father at that time was becoming a landlord, renting rooms in properties he owned in York.
Age 21. When Snow went in the autumn of 1834 to Pateley Bridge, his medical mentor was Mr. Joseph Warburton, a licensed apothecary. Pateley Bridge is in a remote region with scattered settlements to the west of York. The town had a population of about 1,500, with most involved with agriculture, spinning and weaving of flax, quarrying, and lead mining. Snow may have been short of money, needing to earn enough to continue his medical education in London, or perhaps was aware of Warburton by reputation, more prominent than Watson in Burnop Field. He lived in a large house that served as both home and surgery to Joseph Warburton, wife Harriet, and their three children. At this time Snow was a strict vegetarian, apparently puzzling Mrs. Warburton, shocking the cook, and astonishing the children. He also attended local lectures on temperance, accepted the principles of total abstinence, and took the pledge. His teetotal address, later published in the British Temperance Advocate, was delivered in 1836. Snow viewed Warburton with great respect and friendship, later referring to him as his "old master." He remained in Pateley Bridge for 18 months.
Age 23. At the end of his three apprenticeships in the summer of 1836, John Snow returned home to York for a few months. During this time he and his brother Thomas played a part in creating the York Temperance Society. Thereafter he worked to establish other local temperance societies, reflecting the depth of his feelings against alcohol. Soon, however, he yearned to be a tourist and to pay his respects to his uncle, Charles Empson, who had encouraged and perhaps helped arrange his early apprenticeship. To this end, in the summer of 1836 he traveled on foot about 400 miles in 4-5 weeks from York to Liverpool (1856 map, upper center), then on to North and South Wales, and finally back to Bath to spend time with Uncle Charles. Snow enjoyed walking. In October 1836, seven months past his 23rd birthday, he went to London to start his formal medical education at the Hunterian School of Medicine.
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