The Case Books of Dr John Snow

The following essay was taken from Vernon Coleman’s new book My Favourite Books.

Dr John Snow was almost certainly the most influential of all British physicians and one of the most significant in world history. Snow made two huge contributions to medical practice.

First, he introduced anaesthesia into medical practice, and, in particular, for women in confinement. Second, by removing the handle from the Broad Street pump in Soho he helped prevent the spread of cholera in London.

I managed to obtain a complete copy of John Snow’s personal casebooks which include, in amazing detail, his daily medical work from 17th July 1848 until March 5th 1858 (just under three months before his death at the age of 45) and they make extraordinary reading.

In 2003, a poll organised by a magazine for hospital doctors voted Snow ‘the greatest doctor of all time’. Quite right too, though I wonder how many of today’s medical students, nurses and other health care workers have even heard of him.

Dr Snow kept meticulous case books in which he recorded his daily visits and consultations but until 1994, the case books (consisting of 200,000 words) remained unpublished and available therefore only to a very select group of doctors.

In 1994, the ‘Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine’ published a single edition of the three volumes, which had been edited for publication by Richard H.Ellis.

The book contains every word of the journals, which ran from 1845 to 1858.

Nothing else I have ever read provides such a detailed account of medical practice at that time as this volume, which also provides an invaluable insight into the work of the man who has been voted ‘the greatest doctor of all time’.

Taken from My Favourite Books by Vernon Coleman – a collection of essays about over 100 of Vernon Coleman’s favourite non-fiction books.