John Snow

Don’t be confused, today I’m not going to talk about Jon, but about John Snow… who is less famous, but more important… especially nowadays, when epidemics and pandemics are a “trendy topic”. So, today John Snow the father of epidemiology, let’s see why!

Let’s take a look at the middle of the 19th century, when cholera was killing thousands and thanks to new means of transport it was spreading throughout the world. Let’s remember that cholera causes diarrhea and vomiting that end up dehydrating and eventually, killing the unfortunate infected person. Cholera was feared, but little was known about it. So little was known that it was believed to be airborne. In 1854, a cholera epidemic hit London and Snow questioned the idea of airborne transmission. So, he began tracking those affected and discovered that all those infected had one thing in common – they all got their water from the same source. Not without difficulty, he managed to shut down the water supply point and the epidemic was brought under control. Thus, Snow demonstrated that the form of transmission was through contaminated water. He also speculated that the causative agent of the disease was an “animalcule” (the name by which the microorganisms were called in those days). This animalcule, when ingested, would develop in the gut and then be expelled in the excrements. It took more than 30 years for Koch to rediscover the bacillus that caused the disease (in 1854 Filippo Pacini had discovered it, but his discovery went unnoticed).

Despite the fact that we have advanced and studied this bacillus (Vibrio cholerae pacini), people around the world are still being infected, and even so, causing fatal victims. Generating the knowledge to fight infections is crucial, but if adequate resources are not available to transfer this knowledge and adequate policies are not implemented, we are left halfway there.

Ref: L’incroyable histoire de la médicine (Fabiani & Bercovici)

 PS: Snow is also known for practicing the first birth under anesthesia, but that’s another story that deserves another post