Source:  Snow, John. Times, 11 November 1853. [ltr. to ed.]

The water supply at Newcastle

To the Editor of the Times.

Sir,--I shall be obliged if you will allow me to make a few remarks on the letter of Mr. Main, in the Times of this morning. I feel assured that the Registrar-General did not make his forcible observations on the influence of the impure water supply of Newcastle and Gateshead, during the late epidemic of cholera, on insufficient grounds, and that he will be able to substantiate them, if necessary, when the period arrives for another quarterly report. In the meantime, however, the subject is one which may affect the lives of thousands in other towns; and the impression which the letter of your correspondent is likely to make on those who are unacquainted with the history of cholera and the details of the late epidemic at Newcastle ought not to remain unchecked.

Except in speaking of one place--Greenhow terrace--the secretary of the water company groups cholera and diarrhœa together, and says nothing whatever of the deaths. He informs us, for instance, that in the union workhouse, supplied with the company's water, there were 48 cases of cholera and diarrhœa out of 540 inmates; and that in the barracks, supplied with spring water, 415 cases of diarrhœa occurred among 519 inmates. All this I believe is true; but there are some important facts not included in the above statement. I have been informed, on good authority, that 10 persons died of cholera in the union workhouse--a high mortality in such a limited number of persons; while in the barracks there was no death, no case of cholera, and no person seriously ill. The circumstance of 415 soldiers consenting to take a dose or two of pleasant cordial medicine for diarrhœa is certainly not without interest, but has little to do with an inquiry like the present. If anything worse than this had happened to the customers of the Water Company, their secretary would hardly have felt called upon to write an apology.

Mr. Main expresses some regret for the necessity, as he terms it, of obtaining water from the Tyne in the neighbourhood of the sewers, and speaks of a desire on the part of the company to do better in the future; but, according to the figures he has adduced, he has no grounds for these sentiments. His numbers prove too much; they make it appear that there was less cholera and diarrhœa in houses supplied with the Tyne water, so much complained of by the inhabitants both for its colour and flavour, than in houses supplied with good spring water. According to the table Mr. Main has introduced, there were 28 cases of cholera and diarrhœa in the houses supplied with the company's water in certain streets he mentions, these 28 cases being 19 per cent of the inhabitants. In the other houses in the same streets which were supplied with spring water there were seven cases, which are 15 per cent of the 45 inhabitants. But it is not so stated; for another place, named Greenhow-terrace, in the outskirts of the town, and not supplied at all by the company, is added to the houses in which spring water is used, and by this means the cases are made to reach 28 per cent of the inhabitants.

If Mr. Main had told his readers the number of cases of cholera, or still better, the number of deaths from cholera in houses supplied by the company and with spring water respectively, the information, though very limited, might have been of some service; but the figures he has given are of none. He states that Dr. Waller Lewis abandoned his inquiry into the relative effects of different kinds of water, frankly stating he could make nothing of it. I cannot conceive that an inquiry of this nature, if carefully and properly conducted, would be without results of some kind; and I trust that the medical profession in Newcastle will take it up, and conduct it to its conclusion. They are quite competent to make this inquiry without assistance either from the General Board of Health or the water company. The inquiry is not one of mere local interest; it is connected with a more important point in the propagation of cholera, and is therefore of interest to all mankind.

It is little to the purpose that certain places in the neighbourhood of Newcastle and Gateshead, to which the supply of the water company does not extend, have been severely visited by cholera. There have doubtless been causes for this. No one supposes either that water is the only medium for the propagation of cholera, or that the Tyne is the only water capable of being contaminated with the contents of drains and cesspools. Spring water has often been thus adulterated by some accidental leakage in time of cholera, with very fatal results.

The fatality of cholera, in all the three epidemics which Newcastle and Gateshead have suffered, has borne a close relation, inversely, to the purity and abundance of the water-supply, and there is nothing in the communication of Mr. Main to indicate that a minute and detailed inquiry throughout these two towns would overthrow the conclusion which naturally flows from these general facts.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

John Snow, M.D.

Sackville-street, London, Nov. 10.