by Benjamin Ward Richardson

The Early Years

The Victorian Faculty of Physic has produced no one man of commanding genius who has remained in medicine, practicing the art. It has, however, produced many truly representative men who, in their combined labors, offer a magnificent result of work done and advancement made.

Amongst these I should place in the first rank the late Dr. John Snow, and for this reason I bring forward here a sketch of his career for the student of the future.

John Snow was born at York (center left), on June 15th, 1813 [error -- actual date was March 15, 1813]. He was the eldest son of his parents. His father was a farmer. As a child he showed his love of industry, and increasing years added only to the intensity with which he applied himself to any work that was before him. He was first sent to a private school at York, where he learned all that he could learn there. He was fond of the study of mathematics, and in arithmetic became very proficient. At the age of fourteen he went to Newcastle- upon-Tyne (center right), as an articled pupil to Mr. William Hardcastle, surgeon, of that place. He had also the opportunities of studying at the Newcastle Infirmary. During the third year of his apprenticeship, when he was seventeen years old, he formed an idea that the vegetarian system of feeding was the true and the old; and with a consistency which throughout life attended him, tried the system rigidly for more than eight years. He was a noted swimmer at this time, and could make head against the tide longer than any of his omnivorous friends.

At or about the same time that he adopted his vegetarian views, he also took up the temperance cause. He not only joined the ranks of the total abstinence reformers, but became a powerful advocate of their principles for many succeeding years. In the latter part of his life he occasionally drank a little wine, but his views on the subject remained to the end unchanged. He retained a strong faith in total abstinence, and a belief that it must ultimately become universal.

In 1831-32 cholera visited Newcastle and its neighborhood, and proved terribly fatal. In the emergency Mr. Snow was sent by Mr. Hardcastle to the Killingworth Colliery, to attend the many sufferers from the disease. In this labor he was indefatigable, and his exertions were crowned with great success. He made also various observations relating to this disease, which proved to him of immense account in after-years.

He left Newcastle in 1833, and engaged himself as assistant to Mr. Watson, of Burnop Field, near Newcastle, with whom he resided for twelve months. Leaving Burnop Field in 1834-5, he revisited his native place, York, for a short stay, and thence to a certain half-inaccessible village called Pately Bridge, in Yorkshire, to act as assistant to Mr. Warburton, surgeon of that place. Eighteen months at Pately Bridge, with many rough rides, a fair share of night work, a good gleaning of experience, and, this sojourn over, our student went back again to York, to remain a few months, and to take an active share in the formation of temperance societies. In leisure days during this period it was his grand amusement to make long walking explorations into the country, collecting all kinds of information, --geological, social, sanitary, and architectural.

At last York must again be left for the London student life was in view. In the summer of 1836 he set off from York (center left) to Liverpool (upper center), and, trudging it afoot from Liverpool through the whole of North and South Wales, turned London-ward, calling at Bath (upper left) by the way, on a visit to his uncle, Mr. Empson, to whom, to the end of his life, he was devotedly attached. October 1836 eventful October brought him to the "great city," and placed him on the benches of the Hunterian School of Medicine in Windmill Street; a school long since closed, and now as mythical as the mill which gave the name to the locality.

In October 1837 Mr. Snow began to take out his hospital practice at the Westminster Hospital. On May 2nd, 1838, he passed his examination, and was entered duly as a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In October 1838 he passed the Apothecaries' Hall, and was now duly qualified in medicine. His student days were passed at 11, Bateman's Buildings, Soho Square.

At this time there existed in London a society (now the "Medical Society of London"), called the "Westminster Medical Society." It was a society which had long given encouragement to those junior members of the medical profession who might wish for a hearing at its meetings and debates. Mr. Snow was not the man to lose an opportunity such as this. I have often heard him say, both privately and publicly, that, upon his early connection with the "Westminster Medical," his continuance in London depended, and all his succeeding scientific success. When he first attended the meetings of the "Westminster Medical," he was very timid; and although he always spoke to the point, he found it difficult to obtain a favorable notice. At first nobody ever replied to what he said. After a long time some grave counselor condescended to refer to him as the "last speaker" A little later and somebody ventured to name "the last speaker" by his name. Then some one, bolder still, concurred with Mr. Snow; and ultimately Mr. Snow became recognized more and more, until the presidential honors were his own.

Frith Street, Soho-square, No. 54, was the house at which Mr. Snow, to use his own words, "first nailed up his colors." He removed there from Bateman's Buildings in September 1838. He bought no practice, nor exhibited any pretense, but a more thoroughly girded man for the world's encounter could hardly be conceived than he at this time. He took no wine nor strong drink; he lived on anchorite's fare, clothed plainly, kept no company, and found every amusement in his science books, his experiments, and simple exercise.

To fill up time till the money patients should come, he became one of the visitors of the out-patients of Charing Cross Hospital, and to many a representative of the great poor he extended a skill which would have been a blessing to the great rich. The librarian of the College of Surgeons' Library considered him a quiet man, who read closely, and was not too proud to ask for a translation when an original bothered him. All who knew him said he was a quiet man, very reserved and peculiar a clever man, but not easy to be understood, and very peculiar.

The connection with the "Westminster Medical" led to Mr. Snow’s first attempts at authorship. On October 16th, 1841, he read at the Society a paper on "Asphyxia and on the Resuscitation of Newborn Children." The paper in full will be found in the London Medical Gazette for November 5th of the same year. The paper is remarkable for the soundness of its reasonings and the advanced knowledge which it displays. The object of the paper was to introduce to the Society a double air-pump, for supporting artificial respiration, invented by Mr. Read of Regent Circus. The instrument was so devised that by one action of the piston the air in the lungs could be drawn into one of the cylinders, while by the, reverse action the expired air could be driven away, and the lungs supplied with a stream of pure air from the second cylinder. There was also advanced, in the concluding part of the communication, the view that the cause of the first inspiration is probably the same as the second or the last, viz., a sensation or impression arising from a want of oxygen in the system. So long as the placenta performs its functions, the fetus is perfectly at ease, and feels no need of respiration; but whenever this communication between the child and its mother is interrupted, at least in the later months of pregnancy, the child makes convulsive efforts at respiration similar to those made by a drowning animal.

On December 18th, 1841, Mr. Snow was again before the "Westminster Medical" with a very ingenious instrument which he had invented for performing the operation of paracentesis of the thorax. The description of the instrument will be found in the Medical Gazette of January 28th, 1842.

In the Medical Gazette for November 11th, 1842, Mr. Snow published a note on a new mode for securing the removal of the placenta in cases of retention with hemorrhage; and in the same journal for March 3rd, 1843, he communicated an essay on the circulation in the capillary vessels. The essay was selected and rearranged from papers read before the "Westminster Medical" on January 21st and February 4th. We have in this essay an admirable sketch of the capillary circulation. He advanced, on this occasion, the idea that the force of the heart is not alone sufficient to carry on the circulation, but that there is a force generated in the capillary system which assists the motion. He explained also the great importance of the cutaneous exhalation, and reasoned that in febrile states, accompanied with hot skin, the transpiration from the skin is in reality greater than it is in health.

Pushing on in the higher branches of his profession, and aiming always at the best, the degree of the University of London became a temptation, and Mr. became Dr. Snow on the 23rd of November, 1843, by passing the M.B. examination. He was enrolled in the second division on this occasion. On the 20th of December in the following year, he passed the M.D. examination, and came out in the first division. 


Early years of A Biographical Memory of John Snow

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