Source: Journal of Medical Biography 12: 123-124, 2004.


Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow

By Peter Vinten-Johansen, et al. pp. 454. £39.95. ISBN: 0-1951-3544-X, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Many famous figures from history are renowned for one achievement in particular and those from the history of medicine are no exception. However, some have undergone long journeys to arrive at their breakthroughs and John Snow could be included in this group. What this book aims to do is give a rounded view of the work and research carried out by this key historical scientist - and it does this successfully.

The book has great depth of research and shows the man in question not as a single entity but as part of an extremely dynamic era for medicine as a whole. The description of the development of the individual medical colleges and the medical training that was undertaken is particularly interesting - it seems that intercollegiate politics have changed little since their inauguration!

However, medicine is developed in response to population need, and the accounts of both individual cases and the health of the public at the time bring this book alive. The personality and traits of the central character are also well constructed from different sources, and give an insight into what type of person could achieve so much - for example, the experiments and recordings that were done in such a meticulous manner, and the discussions and reports that were so frequent.  None of John Snow's findings was kept secret and none of his innovations in equipment was patented.  The impression the reader is left with is of a hugely motivated man who was not only interested in furthering his own career but who truly believed that medicine could and should be beneficial to all. His professional life was dedicated to the integrity of the nation's health.

The five authors clearly care a great deal about how their subject is portrayed. However, the text is neither embellished nor rose-tinted and as a result is very readable. The background information almost rivals the main topics in terms of depth and interest and, because of this, the scope of the book is much greater than the title might suggest.

This book will appeal to many persons and on public health or anaesthesia would be the most obvious, but historians looking for a different angle on the first half of the nineteenth century may find it a useful work. It is accessible and presents information clearly and concisely. The text is broken up by tables, diagrams and illustrations, which add to the overall quality. From a medical perspective it teaches us one main lesson - specialization does not always achieve more than generalization.

Claire G Caesar

Edinburgh, UK

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