Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor: Dr. Barbara J. Becker
The Public Health and Nuisances Removal Bill: Dr. Snow's Evidence
Editorial, The Lancet, June 23, 1855
|...The free progress of science is always sure to advance the interests
of humanity. Society but wounds itself when it seeks to discredit
the teachings of science, by setting against the comprehensive and well-weighed
decisions of her true representatives, the crude opinions and hobbyistic
dogmas of men whose perceptions are dimmed by the gloom of the den in which
they think and move....
We have [an] example in the conduct of the Committee on the Public Health and Nuisances Removal Bills, now before Parliament ... [which] have encountered formidable opposition from a host of "vested interests" in the production of pestilent vapors, miasms, and loathsome abominations of every kind. These unsavory persons, trembling for the conservation of their right to fatten upon the injury of their neighbours, came in a crowd, reeking with putrid grease, redolent of stinking bones, fresh from seething heaps of stercoraceous [feces-filled] deposits to lay their "case" before the Committee.
They were eloquent upon the health-bestowing properties wafted in the air that had been enriched in its playful transit over depots of rotten bones, stinking fat, steaming dungheaps, and other accumulations of animal matter, decomposing into wealth, such as the imagination shrinks from picturing, and which language cannot describe.
The Committee had before it a soap-boiler..., Mr. Archibald Kintrea (why should his name not live?).... He denies that soap-boiling produces disagreeable effluvia; he "rather likes it himself;" nay, more, "he means to say, that people generally enjoy it" -- ladies especially. And as to its being prejudicial to health, he only knows, that whilst he and his children lived upon the premises, they reveled in exuberant health, and have fallen off since they left. The fact is, it is all a matter of association or of fashion. The odour of putrefying fat is not only salubrious, but agreeable, if you can only make up your mind to discard vulgar prejudices....
But Mr. Kintrea and his colleagues do not rely upon these facts alone. They have "scientific" evidence! They bring before the Committee a doctor [John Snow] and a barrister.... Now, the theory of Dr. Snow tallies wonderfully with the views of the "Offensive Trades' Association" -- we beg pardon if that is not the right appellation.... And they could not possibly get a witness more to their purpose.
Dr. Snow tells the Committee that the effluvia from bone-boiling are not in any way prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants of the district; that "ordinary decomposing matter will not produce disease in the 'human subject.'"
He is asked by Mr. Adderley, "Have you never known the blood poisoned by inhaling putrid matter?"
"No; but by dissection-wounds the blood may be poisoned.""Never by inhaling putrid gases?"
"No; gases produced by decomposition, when very concentrated, will produce sudden death; but when the person is not killed, if he recovers, he has no fever or illness."Dr. Snow next admits that gases from the decay of animal matter may produce vomiting but says this would not be injurious unless frequently repeated.
Is this scientific evidence? Is it consistent with itself? It is in accordance with the experience of men who have studied the question without being blinded by theories?
Let it first be observed that Dr. Snow admits that the gases from decomposing matter may kill outright -- a pretty convincing proof of their potency. He also admits that in a less concentrated form they may cause vomiting. And here he stops, assuring us, that if they don't kill us, or cause repeated vomiting, they do us no harm....
Why is it ... that Dr. Snow is singular in his opinion? Has he any fact to show in proof? No! But he has a theory, to the effect that animal matters are only injurious when swallowed! The lungs are proof against animal poisons; but the alimentary canal affords a ready inlet. Dr. Snow is satisfied that every case of cholera for instance, depends upon a previous case of cholera, and is caused by swallowing the excrementitious matter voided by cholera patients.
Very good! But if we admit this, how does it follow that the gases from decomposing animal matter are innocuous? We cannot tell. But Dr. Snow claims to have discovered that the law of propagation of cholera is the drinking of sewage water.
His theory, of course, displaces all other theories. Other theories attribute great efficacy in the spread of cholera to bad drainage and atmospheric impurities. Therefore, says Dr. Snow, gases from animal and vegetable decompositions are innocuous! If this logic does not satisfy reason, it satisfies a theory; and we all know that theory is often more despotic than reason....
Now we do not think it necessary to prove, by adducing evidence in opposition to Dr. Snow, that decomposing animal and vegetable matters are injurious to health. They ought not to be suffered to be stored in inhabited localities. We are not acquainted with a single medical practitioner of established reputation who would not consider that the removal of deposits of decomposing animal and vegetable matters was an essential condition for the improvement of the health of towns. We have adverted to the evidence of Dr. Snow, for the purpose of repudiating it as the expression of the teaching of medical science....