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

By Peter Vinten-Johansen; Howard Brody et al. | Go to book overview

Preface

This book is the product of an ongoing scholarly collaboration among five professors at Michigan State University who share an inordinate interest in the life and work of an early Victorian physician, John Snow. Early on someone tagged us with a mildly embarrassing nickname, "The Snowflakes," which stuck. Harmony does not always reign among five men with varied training and scholarly expertise: a European intellectual historian (Peter Vinten-Johansen), a philosopher-MD (Howard Brody), an epidemiologist-MD (Nigel Paneth), an American literary and cultural historian (Stephen Rachman), and a medical geographer-epidemiologist (Michael Rip). We began this project with very different views of Snow's writings and his significance in the history of medicine. Because we all agreed that his investigations during the 1854 cholera epidemic in London constituted a singular achievement, our initial intent was to feature that incident in a relatively brief biographical study. Several jointly crafted articles and presentations shaped our collective sense of Snow. In the process, however, we came to believe that only an extensive, interdisciplinary biography would do him justice.

In our view Snow's accomplishments in anesthesia and epidemiology are interconnected. His medical training occurred in the 1830s, when a new generation of medical men attempted to refashion medicine as a scientific discipline with linkages to "the collateral sciences" such as chemistry and comparative anatomy. In this vision of scientific medicine, the ultimate purposes of developing a solid grounding in the collateral sciences of medicine were to enhance one's clinical acumen and to improve the public health. Snow swallowed this intellectual regimen hook, line, and sinker and actualized the vision in his medical career.

Early on he took a special interest in respiratory cases among the patients he was treating, devised animal experiments, and presented his findings and case reports at medical society meetings and in the medical press. He was already a specialist, so to speak, in respiratory physiology and clinical practice when news of inhalation ether reached London from the United States in 1846. Within two years he was arguably the most accomplished anesthetist in the British isles—perhaps even farther afield. When the second pandemic of "Asiatic cholera" reached London in the fall of 1848, his understanding of gas law, respiratory physiology, and anesthetic agents led him to question the predominant theories about the nature and transmission of this devastating disease. The following year he published two essays that outlined his views

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