Broad Street Pump

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Broad Street Pump




Cholera was one of the deadliest and most alarming of the epidemics during the Victorian era, and one of its most terrifying qualities was that for the first half of the nineteenth century, no one seemed to be able to figure out how it was spread. The man credited with that discovery is John Snow, the physician of the parish in Soho. During the epidemics of the 1850s, Snow observed in 1854 that his cholera patients appeared to be linked by a single pump in Broad Street. Richard Barnett reports that "He showed that workers at a brewery located only yards from Broad Street did not succumb because they drank only beer, and never touched water from the pump" (Barnett 148). Meanwhile, he also "proved that an isolated case in Hampstead, three miles from Soho, could be linked to the pump [because a] former resident of the area developed a taste for the water and regularly had casks of it brought up to her" (148). Thus Snow proved that the pump was the source of the epidemic. The handle was removed from the pump, and cholera stopped spreading among the people of the parish of Soho (147). Barnett writes that "the impact of Snow's work during his lifetime was surprisingly slight" because the medical establishment continued to debate the cause of cholera, even after his results appeared to be so conclusive (149). However, Anne Hardy points out that while the doctors kept discussing possible causes, the actual providers of water to the city--the London water companies--saw the writing on the wall and began to change their practices. She writes, "Although it was some years before this conclusion was fully accepted by the medical profession, its implications were usually taken into account in the practical measures taken when cholera threatened in the years after 1854" (Hardy 84). She adds, "From issuing untreated river water in the 1820s, the companies were by the 1850s standardly resting and filtering supplies before distribution," and by "the 1870s, the quality of company water had been significantly improved, and progress continued to be made in filtration and resting techniques until chlorination resolved any remaining doubts about the ultimate purity of filtered river supplies" (84). Snow's conclusions about the Broad Street pump saved the lives of the people of Soho, but they also prompted the water companies to more carefully purify their water, thus saving the lives of many others, even before his conclusions were officially acknowledged.


Frances Thielman


Barnett, Richard.  Sick City:  Two Thousand Years of Life and  Death in London.  London: Wellcomme Trust, 2008. Print.

Hardy, Anne. "Paris Pump to Private Pipes: London's Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century." Medical History Supplement 11 (1991): 76-93. Print.


Frances Thielman, “Broad Street Pump,” Appalachian State University, accessed March 1, 2024,

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