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Conference explores legacy of York-born physician John Snow

Posted on 20 February 2013

The University of York is inviting the local community to join a special event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Snow.

Born into poverty in York on 15 March 1813, John Snow rose to prominence as a physician, transforming both public health and pain management.

He is best known for his work on cholera and his recognition of the importance of non-contaminated water supplies to prevent the spread of infectious disease. He is also celebrated for his work on ether and chloroform, and personally administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of two of her children, Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice.

To celebrate his legacy, the University’s Department of Health Sciences is hosting a one-day conference at the Park Inn, which is on North Street, York, where his family once lived.

Part of the University’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, the event on Friday, 15 March is free to attend and open to all.

Professor Hilary Graham, Head of York’s Department of Health Sciences, said: “Despite the fact that John Snow was born and educated in York, his connection to the city is often overlooked. The conference will explore the life story and legacy of this remarkable York man, explaining how he rose to national eminence from very humble stock, transforming health in the process.  

“His legacy is extremely important to our Department and still relevant to our teaching today. We therefore decided it was fitting to celebrate his amazing achievements by marking this special anniversary in the very street where he was born.”

The event is supported by the University of York and York Medical Society.  Dr Ian Jackson, President of the York Medical Society, said: “John Snow is famous in my own specialty of Anaesthesia for many reasons and so it is fitting that his epitaph includes ‘he made the art of anaesthesia a science’. Perhaps one of his best contributions was using chloroform to provide pain relief to Queen Victoria at the birth of two of her children so changing attitudes to pain relief in labour for future generations.”

The son of a general labourer, John Snow was the eldest of nine children and christened at All Saints Church in North Street. He was educated at Dodsworth School, a so-called “ragged school” set up by philanthropist, John Dodsworth. At 14, he became a medical apprentice and moved to Newcastle, going on to become a qualified surgeon in London, before being admitted to the Royal College of Physicians in 1850. 

The conference will explore the life story and legacy of this remarkable York man, explaining how he rose to national eminence from very humble stock, transforming health in the process. 

Professor Hilary Graham

Professor Karl Atkin, from the University’s Department of Health Sciences and a speaker at the conference, said: “Even as a celebrated physician, John Snow never forgot his working class roots. In the 19th century, the commonly-held position was that the working class were themselves to blame for their ill health and they were widely condemned for drinking too much alcohol and for being ‘feckless’ with their earnings.

“However, John Snow never once blamed the working class, but instead maintained that the water supply was the problem.  This in itself was against the accepted opinion of the time which was that poor health and contagious disease were caused by ‘bad air’ and ‘noxious fumes’. Through his meticulous research and observations, he helped prove that contamination of drinking water was at the root of cholera epidemics.”  

The conference features a number of presentations followed by discussions. Guest speakers include Dr Richard Barnett, from the Wellcome Trust and University College London, Dr Stephanie Snow, from the University of Manchester – a relative of John Snow by marriage, and Dr Andrew Hayward, from University College London.

For free tickets to ‘The Legacy of John Snow’ conference on Friday, 15 March at the Park Inn, North Street, York visit

For further information visit

Notes to editors:

  • A gallery of images for the media to download is available at
  • John Snow is considered one of the founders of epidemiology for his work identifying the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho in 1854.  Following a detailed investigation, which included plotting cases of cholera on a map of the area, he identified a water pump in Broad (now Broadwick) Street as the source of the disease.
  • He is also recognised for his important contribution to the use of anaesthesia.  This is demonstrated by his ornate head stone, paid for by the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland in 1951.
  • For further information on the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York visit

Contact details

Caron Lett
Press Officer

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