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J R Soc Med. 2004 March; 97(3): 153–154.
PMCID: PMC1079335

John Snow and anaesthesia

As an admirer of all that Dr Stanwell-Smith has done for the John Snow Society, I comment reluctantly on her review (December 2003 JRSM1) of the recently published biography.2 Why does she describe Snow as curmudgeonly? Sir Charles Locock, in his 1859 presidential address to the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society, eulogized Snow as follows: `Dr. Snow was recognized everywhere as a remarkably modest and unassuming man, strictly honorable, of a thoroughly amiable disposition, and few have been more regretted by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.' Hardly the description of a curmudgeon.

How did his decision to specialize in `the new and controversial technique of anaesthesia' militate against the recognition of his contribution to medicine? The controversy, if it had any existence at all, was against obstetric analgesia, and did not last long. Snow could list the Queen and members of the nobility among his patients. His contribution to the science of anaesthesia was well recognized in his lifetime, and has been ever since. He is one of the supporters of the Royal College of Anaesthetists' coat of arms, and the Association presents a John Snow Silver Medical.

There would be no point in the Michigan-based authors belonging to the John Snow Society, because it does not publish proceedings. However, I, who was the authors' gofer on this side of the Atlantic for some four years, and whose name appears on the title page, have been a member for more than ten, and I can testify that three of the authors, during visits to London, bought memorabilia from the John Snow Society and visited the eponymous pub.

I was present at the late Dick Ellis's memorable Blessed Chloroform Lecture. That there has been only one does not indicate a lack of interest in Snow; the Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society and the anaesthetics journals provide evidence to the contrary. Has anyone been invited to deliver a second Blessed Chloroform Lecture? Anaesthetists being a self-effacing lotit goes with the specialtyare not going to nominate themselves.


1. Stanwell-Smith R. Book of the month. J R Soc Med 2003;96: 612–13
2. Vinten-Johansen P, Brody H, Paneth N, Rachman S, Rip M. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: a Life of John Snow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003

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