John Snow Stopped Cholera in London with the Help of 500 Beer Drinkers

I’m sure a lot of readers enjoy relaxing on the sofa with a cold one while watching the game on a Sunday; but did you know that beer once helped a physician in a life-saving discovery? During a severe cholera outbreak in London, better known as the Board Street Cholera Outbreak of 1854, Snow was able to prove his hypothesis that contaminated water was the cause, not air.

What’s fascinating is that Snow was able to point to the example of the 535 people who worked in a brewery on Poland Street. While cholera was rampant all around the brewery, only five workers had it, and beer was the surprising link.

The Cholera Problem

By the early 19th century, London was one of the largest cities in the world in terms of population. Unfortunately, this growth was marked by a major problem with filth because of a lack of decent sanitary services. For instance, Soho still didn’t benefit from the London sewer by the middle of the century.

Countless people still didn’t have running water or toilets in their homes. As a result, they were forced to use communal pumps and town wells to get their supply of water which was used for cooking, drinking, and washing. The septic systems were very primitive, and most homes and businesses simply dumped animal waste and sewage into open pits known as cesspools or even directly into the River Thames. To make matters worse, water companies would bottle water from the Thames and sell it to breweries, pubs and other businesses.

Victorian Web. Early Investigations into Cholera

It was a recipe for disaster, and sure enough, London was gripped with a series of cholera outbreaks. The first wave of the disease occurred in 1831 and killed thousands of people. Another outbreak occurred in 1849 and between the two events, more than 14,000 people died.

John Snow Battles Conventional Wisdom

John Snow was born in 1813 in the desperately poor region of York. He apprenticed as a surgeon, but in 1850, he moved to London where he worked as a physician. At the time, there were competing theories as to the reasons behind the cholera epidemic. The prevailing theory was known as the ‘miasma’ theory which said that the diseases were effectively spread by ‘bad air.’ The suggestion was that particles from decomposed matter became part of the air and caused the disease to spread.

Snow was a proponent of the ‘Germ’ theory which suggested that the main cause of the disease was an unidentified germ cell. Snow believed that this germ was transmitted from person to person through the consumption of water. As intelligent as this hypothesis sounds, few medical practitioners paid any attention to it. Indeed, one of London’s leading pathologists, John Simon, labeled the Germ Theory as ‘peculiar.’

However, it didn’t take long for Snow to get the opportunity to prove his theory. On August 31, 1854, another cholera outbreak occurred, this time in Soho. A total of 616 people died, and Snow was able to get to the root of the problem.