How did the son of a laborer from York end up
as a physician in London among
the most prominent members of British society, and be asked to
administer chloroform on two occasions to Queen Victoria?
The answer appears here.
Following his working-class start
in life, John Snow toiled long and hard to become a physician.
Early during his illustrious career he developed a lasting interest in anesthetic agents.
Shortly after anesthetic ether was introduced in Great Britain, Snow in 1847 published a short article entitled, On
the Inhalation of the Vapor of Ether. He was then 34 years old and
only three years beyond his M.D. degree. Thereafter and for many years to come, he produced a series
of papers on his clinical experience with anesthesia.
Besides ether as an anesthetic agent, he
also focused on chloroform. It was not until shortly after his death in 1858,
however, that Snow's major
work appeared: On Chloroform and Other Anesthetics, and Their Action and
BIRTH AND ANESTHESIA
During his career, Snow anesthetized 77 obstetric patients with
chloroform. Typically he would delayed initiating the anesthetic until patients
approached the second stage of labor. He limited the dose so that his
patients would achieve satisfactory analgesia, but not be rendering completely
unconscious. Many pushed on command during the delivery. Snow felt that light levels of anesthesia had
little effect on labor and had even observed instances in which labor appeared to accelerate after he
began anesthetic induction. While Snow believed it possible for the obstetrician to administer the anesthetic,
he suggested that it would be safer if anesthesiology was delegated to some other
During the middle of his career,
began working with three of Queen Victoria's physicians, including Dr. Charles
Locock. All had
reservations about the use of anesthesia, as did most physicians of the day. Yet
in 1848, all three conferred with John Snow, possibly at the urging of Prince
Albert (see picture) who expressed interest in
obtaining anesthesia for his wife, Queen Victoria.
keeping with most families of her time, Victoria and Albert had many children, nine in all.
Most of her children married into other royal families of Europe:
- Victoria, Princess Royal (born 1840, married
Friedrich III, German Emperor);
- Edward VII (born 1841, married Alexandra,
daughter of Christian IX of Denmark);
- Alice (born 1843, married Ludwig IV, Grand
Duke of Hesse and by Rhine);
- Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg
and Gotha (born 1844, married Marie of Russia);
- Helena (born 1846, married Christian of
- Louise (born 1848, married John Campbell, 9th
Duke of Argyll);
- Arthur, Duke of Connaught (born 1850, married
Louise Margaret of Prussia);
- Leopold, Duke of Albany (born 1853, married
Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont); and
- Beatrice (born 1857, married Henry of
While the Queen and Prince Albert first showed interest in chloroform in 1848,
no anesthetic was administered for her seventh delivery in 1850 of Arthur, the
future Duke of Connaught. Such reservations disappeared in 1853 by the time her eighth
delivery occurred (Prince Leopold). Dr. John Snow gave her chloroform, but
used an open-drop method (see picture to the right) rather than the inhaler he had earlier
invented (see picture to the left).
The social elite in London soon followed the
Queen's lead, adding further credibility to the use of anesthesia. Four
years later, the Queen had Princess Beatrice, her ninth and final child, also with Dr. John Snow
providing chloroform. He again used the open-drop approach, likely at
her or Dr. Locock's request. Snow's friend and biographer, Sir
Benjamin Richardson, wrote more on the impact of Snow's experience with Queen
Victoria in the third section of his biographical
JOHN SNOW'S CASE RECORDS
The case records of the Queen Victoria's eighth
and ninth births are presented below.
BIRTH OF PRINCE LEOPOLD
April 7, 1853
Snow was 40 years old. He had
recently moved in London to the affluent Sackville Street, off Piccadilly, but
still near the Broad Street Pump, the site one year later of his lasting
epidemiological fame. He administered chloroform to the Queen on this day to
assist with the birth of her son.
REACTION OF THE LANCET
May 14, 1853
influential medical journal, The Lancet, criticized Dr.
Snow (but not by name) and Queen Victoria's physicians for using chloroform
during the birth of Prince Leopold.
OF PRINCESS BEATRICE
was 44 years old. He
administered chloroform to the Queen on this day to assist with the birth of her
daughter. Fourteen months later Dr. Snow died at the youthful age of 45
click to return to John Snow site
Caton, D. Anesthesiology 92m 247-52, 2000.
Ellis, RH. Medical History (Supp 14), 1994.