Huggins and Dr Snow's Cholera Investigations

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When I was last in Central London with a few hours to spare I thought I would have a stroll around Golden Square in the West End, just on the off-chance that there were any remains of Huggins Brewery (Huggins & Co. Ltd). Of course, the developers had been there before me and as a result the entire area has been repeatedly redeveloped. During the walk I passed a pub called the John Snow, previously known as The Crown. I realised that the road that Huggins was in was Broad Street, and John Snow is inextricably linked to the story of the Broad Street Pump.

When I got home I did some on-line research on the good Doctor Snow. He was convinced that the outbreak of Cholera in England at that time was not being spread by “bad air” or “miasma” as was the popular belief at the time. The evidence he collected using his knowledge of disease and the area proved that it was to do with the water and not the air.

His methods laid the foundation for all future research into diseases and epidemics. He produced a map that showed each Cholera case and its distance from Broad Street. This proved that deaths fell away as the consumers were further from the pump. He then cross referenced this to the water companies being used by the families of the victims. At the time the quality of the water being supplied by these companies could be extremely suspect.

Eventually, he was sure that the quality of the water being taken from the local pump in Broad Street was to blame for spreading the infection. It took a lot to convince the local authority but eventually he persuaded them to remove the handle of the pump, thus effectively taking it out of operation. The results were a decrease in deaths and, more importantly, a non-recurrence of the disease. The first time in history that a public body stepped in on a matter of public health, and the birth of a framework for the future.

Brewery history features high in the story. In the process of evidence gathering, Dr Snow interviewed people from around the area and realised that many in the area drank only beer and never drank water from the pump.

During my own research I realised that little is actually said in published works about the beer drinkers, giving no attribution to their occupation. Wikipedia says “There was one significant anomaly - none of the monks in the adjacent monastery contracted cholera. Investigation showed that this was not an anomaly, but further evidence, for they drank only beer, which they brewed themselves.”

This seemed remarkably glib. After all this was 19th century London and in the West End to boot! I doubted that there were any monasteries left in London after Henry VIII closed Blackfriars.

By chance there was an exhibit in the London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine as 15th March 2013 is John Snow’s 200th birthday. They are very clear on where the beer drinkers came from – those who drank the life saving brews worked in Huggins Brewery – as I had suspected all the time.

The proof comes from John Snow’s own paper On the Mode of Communication if Cholera dated 1855 account “There is a brewery on Broad Street, near to the pump, and on perceiving that no brewer’s men were registered as having died of cholera, I called on Mr Hugguns (sic) the proprietor (...) the men were allowed a certain quantity of malt liquor, and Mr Hugguns (sic) believes they do not drink water at all; and he is quite certain that the workmen never obtained water from the pump in the street. There is a deep well in the brewery, in addition to the New River water.”

Additionally, the liquor for the brewing process came from the brewery’s own well rather than from the same source as the pump.

Not the first time in history that the brewing process has provided a safe, pure source of thirst quenching liquid. Long may it remain.

Further Reading:

  • The Medical Detective by Sandra Hempel