Cartographies of Life & Death: John Snow & Disease Mapping

Cartographies of Life and Death marks the bicentenary of John Snow (1813–1858). The exhibition celebrates his famous inquiry into the cholera outbreaks of 1850s London, and the lasting significance of his work in the fields of disease mapping and public health. Historical documents from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) Library & Archives, the Wellcome Library, the Museum of London and the London Metropolitan Archives, some on display for the first time, are shown alongside specially commissioned contemporary artworks.

John Snow’s map showing deaths from Cholera in Broad Street, Golden Square, and the neighbourhood, from 19th August to 30th September 1854.
John Snow’s map showing deaths from Cholera in Broad Street, Golden Square, and the neighbourhood, from 19th August to 30th September 1854.
Conceived as a disease mapping ‘detective’ trail, the exhibition invites you to chart your own journey of discovery across different sites and ways of mapping.

Snow’s medical and street-level knowledge of the Soho area where he also lived, led him to deduce that cholera was transmitted by water, not ‘miasma’ or polluted air, as previously thought. It was the application of cartography though, that gave his complex theory its accessible image, and today summarises a powerful story of how cultural, social and political beliefs can act as barriers to scientific knowledge and understanding.

As pointed out by Jimmy Whitworth, Head of International Activities at the Wellcome Trust, Dr John Snow was a polymath, with interests in a wide-variety of topics. He was fascinated by anaesthesia, a newly discovered technique that promised to transform the horrors of surgery of the day. He was particularly interested in chloroform and conducted a number of experiments culminating in administering chloroform to Queen Victoria while she was in childbirth. But John Snow is most remembered today for his pioneering work in epidemiology, a discipline that he more or less invented. He was thrown into the midst of a cholera epidemic in Soho, London, near his place of work, and he was determined to find the source of the outbreak. Remember that this was at a time before acceptance of Germ Theory, and it was generally held that most diseases were caused by a ‘miasma’ in the air. Snow noted that there was a clustering of cases around Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) but that not everyone in the neighbourhood was affected. In fact it was the outliers and anomalies that nailed his hunch that drinking water from a public water pump was the source of the epidemic. You can read more about John Snow here. Note that the Wellcome Trust is participating in a number of events organised by the John Snow Society to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Snow.

13 March – 17 April 2013, Monday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, WC1E 7HT. Free entry.

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