While in London (UK) last week, I went with a group of people to the John Snow pub. It’s a bit of an epidemiologist pilgrimage, where you can sit in a pub named after one of the "fathers of epidemiology" and sign the guest book.

John Snow was a physician in London in the mid-1800’s. Cholera outbreaks were a problem in Victorian London because of contaminated communal wells (for drinking water). Unlike many others, Snow did not believe in the miasma theory, which stated that noxious vapours in the air were the cause of many illnesses. While the "germ theory" of disease was not yet on the scene, Snow thought there must be some other way that diseases like cholera were transmitted, and he suspected (correctly) that the water supply was the problem.

During a cholera outbreak in 1854, he determined that a well in central London (Broad St, now Broadwick St) was a major source of the disease. Removing the handle from the pump (so that people could no longer use the well) stopped the outbreak.  Although Snow himself suggested that the outbreak was already in decline, removing that source undoubtedly played a large role in saving many lives. Back then (and even still commonly today), getting people to accept and adhere to infection control measures was not easy. After the outbreak ended, public officials fixed the pump, despite the fact that it was clearly associated with the outbreak. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that this well was associated with disease, since it was shallow and very close to a cesspool.

The John Snow pub is located at the original site of the Broad Street pump.  You can see the location of the original pump from the window of the pub (there’s a replica pump there and a marking on the ground at the exact site of the original pump). So, you can visit the source of a great cholera outbreak, peer out at the simple solution that helped stop it,  and have a drink in the pub named after John Snow – something that’s more than a little ironic, since Snow was also famous as a teetotaler.