John Snow grew up in a poor household in York (center left), England.  When he decided on a medical career, likely his family was delighted but also concerned with the potential cost.  In 1827 while still a young boy of 14, John Snow traveled far from home to Newcastle- upon-Tyne (center right) to apprentice with William Hardcastle.  Typically the cost would have been 100 pounds ($26,200 in 1999 US$).  Then later in 1836 when he went to the Hunterian Medical School in London, he paid a fee of 34 pounds ($6,800 in 1999 US$).  Who helped and encouraged John Snow in these early years?  Who assisted Snow's family in paying for the apprenticeship and education?  Perhaps the answers lie with his favorite uncle, Charles Empson.


Born December 21, 1794, Charles was the third child of Mary Askham and John Empson, a weaver in York.  Charles was the younger brother of Frances Askham, who was born in 1789 before Mary Askham and John Empson were formally married in 1792.  Thus Frances assumed the last name of her mother, different from that of her brother Charles.  Later Frances married William Snow and they gave birth to John Snow, perhaps named after his maternal grandfather.    

Not much is known of Charles Empson's early years except that he yearned to travel. His family was not wealthy, with the father having been a weaver.  When Charles was 29, he left England in June 1824 for South America, and spent time in northern section of the continent in what is now Colombia.  He traveled with his good friend, Robert Stephenson, whose father George was a famous railway engineer in Newcastle upon-Tyne.  Robert spent his first twelve years in Killingworth, a small town to the north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where his father was employed as an engineer at the local colliery. Robert did his early schooling in Long Benton, a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the south of Killingworth.

In 1827 when John Snow was 14 and considering a medical  apprenticeship, Uncle Charles and his friend Robert were finishing their three-year South American journey and continuing to New York.  Robert Stephenson's family doctor was William Hardcastle who lived in Long Benton; Hardcastle was also a close friend of Charles Empson.  Knowing of his nephew's interests in medicine, Charles likely encouraged Robert to write Hardcastle to arrange for the apprenticeship of John Snow. 

The two friends left Colombia at the end of July 1827, one month after John Snow started his apprenticeship with William Hardcastle.  They brought with them precious objects of pre-Colombian art, including some gold artifacts which Charles later exhibited in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Unfortunately, some of their possessions were lost in a shipwreck at the entrance to New York harbor.  After spending time in New York city, Charles and Robert went on a walking tour of New York State and Canada, traveling as far as Montreal.  They arrived in Liverpool (upper center), England in November 1827.  


After his three-year journey, Charles Empson settled in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and where he started a business as a fine art bookseller. The business flourished until 1834, when he relocated to Bath.  A year earlier John Snow had also left Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but for Bumopfield to attend the second of three medical apprenticeships. 

In Bath, Charles Empson was described as a museum keeper or perhaps more accurately, as a picture dealer. He became increasingly prominent in local society. One of his acquaintances was Charles Louis Napoleon (1808-1873) who was living in Bath and later proclaimed himself to be Emperor Napoleon III of France (shown here).  John Snow visiting Uncle Charles in Bath in 1836 before traveling to London to begin his formal medical education.

When first moving to Bath, Empson lived at 9 Cleveland Place, next to the Cleveland Bridge over the River Avon (see map).  In the same building he had a museum which showed both paintings and historical works.  The building remains, now identified as  Cleveland Place West, similar in appearance in 2007 to an earlier photo taken in 1994.

In 1843, Empson moved to 7 Terrace Walks, close to the Bath Abbey (see red circle on map). Again his building was listed as a museum, but was more an art gallery since it also featured the work of local artists.  Now the building is occupied by a video store (click here).  The map also shows the location of a four paneled stained-glass window in the northwest corner of Bath Abbey (see orange circle on map), donated by his friends in memory at the time of his death.  To see an outside and inside view of the Abbey entrance and window, click here.


A painting of Charles Empson is now owned by the descendant of John Snow's brother Thomas (1821-1893).  The undated portrait is believed to be painted by Willes (or Willis) Maddox, a Bath artist who later moved to London.  To view the painting, click here.  To see another picture of Empson in his later years, click here.


Over the years, Charles Empson on many occasions visited  London.  Given their close relationship, he and John Snow  probably spent much time together.  It is also probable that Empson helped Snow finance his early medical practice. Later in 1856, Empson and John Snow traveled to France to visit Napoleon III, giving Snow, the son of a common laborer, opportunity to become acquainted with both the French Emperor and earlier, the British Queen.    


John Snow died in London in June 1858. Three years later, in June 1861, Charles Empson was sick for three days with what probably was pneumonia and subsequently died on June 25, 1861. He was 66 years old.   At the time of his death, Empson's estate was valued at 8,000 pounds ($770,000 in 1999 US$).  He left some of his estate to various charities in Bath, but most of his assets were left to his family members, including his sister Frances (i.e., John Snow's mother) who outlived both her brother and son.  Similar to his nephew John Snow, Charles Empson never married and left no sons or daughters to inherit his wealth.  

Empson was buried in Brompton Cemetery in London, in a grave marked by a low tombstone next to that of John Snow.  He probably reserved the plot when John Snow died.  


Who helped and encouraged John Snow in early years when he first considered medicine?  Who assisted Snow's family in paying for the apprenticeship and education? The answer to the first question is likely Charles Empson with the connections of his close friend Robert Stephenson. The answer to the second question remains unclear since Empson was still on his long journey when Snow began his apprenticeship.  John Snow's father had bought some land on the outskirts of York, and perhaps raised sufficient money to fund John Snow's apprenticeship.  Or possibly William Hardcastle charged less than his regular apprenticeship rate as a favor to the Stephenson family.  Later when John Snow was in London obtaining his medical education, Uncle Charles perhaps assisted with financial support, but even here the financial mystery remains.  


Anonymous. The Bath Directory. H. Silverthorne, Bath, 1841. 

Anonymous. The Bath Directory. H. Silverthorne, Bath, 1846.

Anonymous. Charles Empson, d 25 June 1861. Bath and Cheltenham Gazette, July 3, 1861. 

Charlton M. Personal Communication, January, 2000.

Ellis, RH. Medical History (Supp 14), 1994.

Galbraith, S. Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) -- His Early Years, 2002.

Vinten-Johansen P et al. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow, 2003.

Zuck, D. Personal Communication, October-December, 1999.

Zuck, D. Proc. History of Anaesthesia Society (12), 56-62, 1993. 

Zuck, D. Anaesthesia (56), 227-230, 2001.

click to return to John Snow's Early Years

Return to John Snow site