York Civic Trust plaques

John Snow (1813-1858)

Doctor and pioneering epidemiologist

Location of plaque: at the John Snow Memorial in North Street Gardens

There's an unusual memorial in North Street Gardens.

It looks for all the world like a Victorian water pump, minus its pump handle (which is lying on the ground nearby). And that's precisely what it is.

Nearby is a small blue plaque. “John Snow (1813-1858),” it reads. “Pioneer of public health and anaesthesia. Proved that cholera is water-borne.”

Snow was the man who rose from humble beginnings in York to be ranked the 'greatest physician of all time' in a poll of British doctors in 2003.

He was born in North Street on March 15, 1813. The street was then one of the poorest parts of York. Snow's father, William, was a labourer in a nearby coalyard.

Yet despite his humble background, Snow rose to become one of the most famous doctors of his age. He was a pioneer in the field of anaesthetics - so highly regarded that he was called in to help Queen Victoria during two of her pregnancies. But it isn’t for being Victoria’s anaesthetist that he’s best known today. He's remembered now as the man who worked out how cholera, one of the most feared diseases of Victorian times, was spread.

He did it by tracing the origin of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854.

Medical opinion at the time believed the disease was transmitted through the air. Snow, however, was convinced that it was spread by water.

In 1854, an outbreak of cholera struck in Broad Street. Within ten days, 500 people died.

Determined to trace the source of the outbreak, Snow - who had a medical practice in London - applied a scientific approach. He obtained a list of the people who had died, and plotted a map showing where they all lived. It showed that most of the deaths had occurred in the neighbourhood of a public water pump in Broad Street.

Snow persuaded the local board of guardians that the pump handle should be removed (as it has been in that memorial in York) so no one could draw water from the pump.

It was a decision that helped end the outbreak. A subsequent enquiry established that the pump was indeed the source of the outbreak. Snow had been right.

He is recognised today as one of the founding fathers of epidemiology – the branch of medicine dealing with the spread of disease and how to control it. It is a science that has saved countless lives. And Snow – the little boy from the slums of North Street – was the man who started it all.

To read the story behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk