The Medical Detective: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera

Author: Sandra Hempel Granta £18.99 ISBN-13: 978-1-86207-842-0

Neither the medical profession nor the government could have been less prepared when cholera arrived in England in 1831. At least 84,000 people had already died by the time of the third outbreak in 1854, yet only one person was any the wiser as to its cause. Even then Dr John Snow was initially ignored by his profession and the officials of the government’s successive Boards of Health.  

This is not only the story of how Dr Snow unearthed the secret behind one of the worst diseases of the 19th century but also an account of the socio-economic status of Victorian England, portraying the squalid conditions of this country’s slums. Disturbing reports highlight the ignorance of scientists and the medical profession in particular. Some astonishing treatments are offered in an attempt to overcome cholera, giving the impression that doctors were more akin to purveyors of medieval torture than members of a caring, humanitarian profession.  

Fortunately there is the occasional glimmer of light. Hempel describes the early days of anaesthesia, the roots of modern epidemiology and the development of microbiology. An account of the beginning of health and welfare reform is set alongside the establishment of consumer rights and food laws. Moreover, there is the germ of evidence-based medicine trying to break through.  

Sandra Hempel has successfully combined historical facts with scientific detail in The Medical Detective.  

It reads as the absorbing narrative of an unfolding drama.  

The outcome should provide great interest to both doctor and layperson alike and warrants a place on every medical student’s reading list.  

Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler is a GP in Lincolnshire and north Yorkshire  

What GP readers thought about The Medical Detective  

Dr Chris Rose, a GP in Kettering, says: ‘If you like a historical medical book that reads like a modern day detective novel, this is the book to put on your Christmas list. It is vast and detailed in its scope, a well thought out and extensively researched novel. Littered with names that any medic today will recognise from their student days.’  

Oban GP, Dr Colin Wilson, comments: ‘The book is interlaced with interesting and colourful characters and stories. After qualifying as a doctor in London, John Snow pioneers the use of anaesthetics and anaesthetises Queen Victoria in childbirth with chloroform. With epidemiological investigations, Snow surmised the water from the Broad Street pump was the cause of the 1954 Soho cholera outbreak and persuaded the authorities to remove the pump handle. He privately published his work but was derided for his suggestions and unfortunately he died before his work was accepted. I thoroughly enjoyed this highly readable detective story. To modern eyes the evidence appears so obvious but, as we know, hindsight is a wonderful thing.’  

Dr Chee Sheng Wong, a GP from Hampshire says: ‘This is a gripping read. Even though you know what is going to happen next, you still can’t wait to turn the page. It is about the search for the cause and prevention of cholera. John Snow’s biography just pads it up a bit.’

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