Resilient Cities, John Snow and Mapping

11th April 2013

An exhibition has opened in London to celebrate 200 years since the birth of John Snow (1813-1858). A man who's name is more recently associated with a famous English fast bowler and a current TV News reader, John Snow was famous in his own time for pioneering anaesthesia. He was the first to be appointed to attend Queen Victoria, wrote the first text book on anaesthesia and pioneered the first inhalator.

For those of us with an interest in resilient cities, his fame relates to his work on Cholera. In Victorian London, Cholera was a terrifying disease that swept through the population from time to time. You could feel sick in the morning and be dead by nightfall, and there was no effective medical intervention. Its cause was thought to be through air borne transmission related to the foul smells of the developing City. It was recently described as the AIDS, H5N1 and Corona virus all combined and of its day.

In 1854 a further outbreak occurred in Soho and this is where John Snow enters the story. He mapped the disease in Soho and a similar outbreak in South London. He concluded that this was water borne and not air borne, and that the source of the outbreak was the pump from which everyone obtained their water. He is famous for saying that the outbreak could be stopped by removing the handle. Now this was done, despite understandable opposition from those deprived of their source of fresh water, and the disease duly halted.

This story was related at Snow's funeral by his good friend and in 1883 the bacteria were discovered in water that caused this disease, final proof of John Snow's theory. When the US needed a text book to start their work on public health, the book started with the story of John Snow.

To this day, the basics of John Snow's argument are still key to building resilient cities – i.e. clean water and clean housing. London still benefits from the Victorian sewers and clean water that transformed public health more than anything before or since. But it is a story and whilst the key facts are correct, the reality is more complicated and complex with many more actors involved. Nonetheless, we should celebrate John Snow for what he was and did achieve and take him to represent the many others that also contributed. You can learn more by attending the exhibition featuring his original maps at the London School of Tropical Medicine (see and having a drink in the John Snow pub at 39 Broadwick Street, London, W1F 9QJ, outside of which is a pink slab that marks the location of the pump whose handle was so famously removed.