John Snow – best revision of obituary ever

 Sandra Hempel of the Lancet has published a revision of their obituary of John Snow.


The original obituary was published on June 26, 1858 and said:

“Dr John Snow: This well-known physician died at noon, on the 16th instant, at his house in Sackville Street, from an attack of apoplexy. His researches on chloroform and other anaesthetics were appreciated by the profession.”

John Snow was an early epidemiologist and public health physician. His work was outstanding, and unrecognized in his time. He is most famous for his early work on linking Cholera to a water source. He produced this graphic, mapping out cases of disease and the local water pump.


This work was highlighted by Edward Tufte  (I’ll post more on Tufte later, needless to say, you should look at his books, especially his perspective on powerpoint) as being an excellent example of graphical data analysis.

Snow did do pioneering work on anesthesia (from UCLA’s Dept of Epidemiology web page):

John Snow in 1847 published a book on the use of ether as an anesthetic agent in surgical operations.  While his fame in anesthesiology derived from his extensive work with chloroform, he also was a pioneer in the use of ether.

From the revised obituary:

The journal accepts that some readers may wrongly have inferred that The Lancet failed to recognise Dr Snow’s remarkable achievements in the field of epidemiology and, in particular, his visionary work in deducing the mode of transmission of epidemic cholera. The Editor would also like to add that comments such as “In riding his hobby very hard, he has fallen down through a gully-hole and has never since been able to get out again” and “Has he any facts to show in proof? No!”, published in an Editorial on Dr Snow’s theories in 1855, were perhaps somewhat overly negative in tone.

Perhaps. And

And the medical officer of the Poland Street workhouse, John French, remarked that “although ephemeral criticism has been uniformly against him, yet I venture confidently to predict, that the facts which have been brought to light by his indefatigable industry will prove to posterity that he was by far the most important investigator of the subject of cholera who has yet appeared”.

(h/t the ever worth reading Ivan Oransky – what you don’t check in at Retraction Watch at least once a week?)


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