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

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

Chapter 8
Snow's Cholera Theory

AFTER NOTING WITH INCREASING ANXIETY that cholera was spreading across Russia and into western Europe in the summer of 1848, the Lancet reported several confirmed cases of cholera in the London metropolis early in October.1 However, Dr. John Webster, the incoming president of the Westminster Medical Society, stated at the opening meeting of the session on 21 October that it had not "made much progress in the metropolis" since then despite the attention given to its advance, whereas influenza and scarlatina received little press but were no less dangerous. The minutes reveal that the society was prospering: "the rooms in Saville-row were completely crowded, reminding us of the society in its most palmy days. About sixty fellows and visitors were present."2

After the president concluded his remarks and a fellow presented a case report on removal of a placenta while the patient was under the influence of chloroform, Mr. Francis Hird read a paper on "The pathology and treatment of cholera." "After giving an account of the disease, and describing the symptoms in a highly graphic manner" (perhaps for the benefit of members who were not in the profession during the 1831–1832 epidemic), he reviewed "post-mortem appearances he had observed in twelve cases of the disease."3 In his mind "no known remedies have any specific power of counteracting the peculiar agency of the poison," so it was imperative that medical men choose remedies likely to counter the known pathological effects of the disease at each stage. Among others, he recommended chalk powder, opium, calomel,

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