Once Upon a Time in SoHo, London: Eradicating Cholera and the Story of GIS

Authored by Paul Gorman, ImageSoft Account Executive

The Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard Of 

Dr. John Snow was born March 15, 1813, in the City of York, in the United Kingdom. Dr. John Snow is the most famous person you have never heard of.  He was an innovator and inventor of anesthesia, advocating for chloroform instead of ether, but he is most famous for eradicating the Cholera epidemic in SoHo London.   

Snow was a skeptic of the then-dominant miasma theory that stated that diseases such as cholera and bubonic plague were caused by a noxious form of “bad air.” If it was “bad air,” why was the disease so localized?  So he did something innovative – Snow plotted the Cholera deaths on a map showing the concentration of the deaths. Then he started adding other information to his map.  The city was supplied by water from wells – he added those.  He noticed the concentration of deaths around the Broad Street pump. 

Word From Dr. Snow Himself 

After Dr. Snow had plotted the deaths and other data, he realized that maybe there was something in the water, not “bad air.”  To put it in his own words: 

“On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street… 

With regard to the deaths occurring in the locality belonging to the pump, there were 61 instances in which I was informed that the deceased persons used to drink the pump water from Broad Street, either constantly or occasionally… 

The result of the inquiry, then, is, that there has been no particular outbreak or prevalence of cholera in this part of London except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking the water of the above-mentioned pump well. 

I had an interview with the Board of Guardians of St. James’s parish, on the evening of the 7th inst [7 September], and represented the above circumstances to them. In consequence of what I said, the handle of the pump was removed on the following day.” 

— John Snow, letter to the editor of the Medical Times and Gazette. 

GIS and Epidemiology: The Evolution 

It is surprising how different data looks and what insights can be gained from examining data geographically.  Dr. John Snow realized on the map above that the proximity to the Water Pump was something most of the deaths shared.  What was not apparent in the raw data became apparent when the data was displayed geographically.  Dr. Snow also used data in geographic layers.  The streets, the houses, the deaths and the water pumps are all different layers on Dr. Snow’s map.  The layering of geographic data to see relationships has become a science and profession. 

Dr. John, in this one incident, invented to scientific disciplines, GIS and Epidemiology, as well as advancing medical knowledge and hygiene.  It is no accident that epidemics are routinely mapped today using sophisticated GIS systems or that epidemiologists track food stuffs when trying to document disease outbreaks. 

Dr. Snow did not stop there.  He spent his remaining life mapping the infrastructure of London’s water and sewer systems and advocated for better city infrastructure, especially better water and sewer systems, for the rest of his life.  His maps became the basis for the geographic infrastructure mapping that is used by the City of London today. 

Mapping infrastructure and agency data can provide transportation organizations with useful information that can help with planning, public information portals, highway development and asset maintenance.  While Dr. Snow had to laboriously plot each data element onto his map, today’s paperless users can instantly plot geographic content on the fly using OnBase ESRI integration technologies.  Content stored in OnBase can be dynamically searched and plotted to create a layer on ESRI that shows the geographic distribution on top of the infrastructure mapping layers. 

Much like Dr. Snow’s transformation, we’ve seen how, by leveraging this technology, countless government entities have digitally transformed route planning, analysis, geographic reporting and, yes, even epidemiology (if that is required).  

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What’s your favorite application for GIS and/or OnBase ESRI integrations?  

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