Thursday, 10 January 2013

John Snow (1813-1858) - vegan

This week I attended York Philosophical Society's commemorative lecture about John Snow, the physician and 'father of epidemiology', given by Dr Steven Oliver. Much of the content I covered in 2012 on the Open University excellent course, 'Infectious Diseases and Public Health' - SK320.

However, what was new, and relevant more to this blog history of veganism, was that Dr Oliver portrayed John Snow as a fairly strict vegan who distilled his own water from an early age (thus perhaps displaying his disposition to seeing health problems stemming from impurities in water itself).  I am not sure if this means he followed the Temperance movement, as he was known to drink a little bit... So, following this discovery, I thought I would have a search through some archives for more information about or mention of Snow's diet...

The Temperance Movement began around the 1830s (or before in different guises), possibly as a backlash against the use of alcohol in the early 19th century.. the rise in Gin Houses, &c, which boasted that you could be “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence”. (Rise of Temperance)... this would be about the time that John Snow became a vegetarian... at the age of 17 (1830), John Snow became a vegetarian whilst in his 3rd year as a medical apprentice in Newcastle and, according to a UCLA page, remained vegetarian until he was 25 (1838) (John Snow on UCLA's Public Health website).  This is slightly different to the impression I got from the lecture - that he remained a vegan for the rest of his life.  There appears to be an error somewhere.  There is also a link on the UCLA page to a 'diet' section:

The link between John Snow's diet and his state of health has been the subject of much speculation. At the age of seventeen [Z- 1830], John Snow became a vegetarian and continued to abstain from meat for eight years.  He had, however, supplemented his vegetarian diet with butter and milk.  When others pointed out that he was not adhering to the regime of an absolute vegetarian, he proceeded to eliminate all animal products from his diet. He also had been a strong advocate of temperance, and was a total abstainer from alcohol.  In 1836 he had joined the York Temperance Society, and remained a member of this organization until his death.  He also in 1845 became the Honorary Secretary of the Medical Temperance Society of London, reflecting the strength and persistence of his views. 

It is also mentioned on the UCLA page that the eldest of his younger brothers, William Snow (1815-?), ran a temperance hotel in York; and his youngest brother, Thomas Snow (1821-1893), who entered the clergy, also strongly supported the temperance movement, was a teetotaller, and stayed by John's side throughout his life and at his death.

In the section 'Ill Health' below the diet section it is stated: "In 1845 he had an acute attack of renal disease. His physician told him to abandon his strict vegetarian diet and to take wine in small quantities. He complied and thereafter his health was reported to have improved."  This is confusing - since the website says he remained a vegetarian until 1838.

There is short mention of Snow's vegetarianism in a biography by Benjamin Ward Richardson "John Snow M.D. - A Representative of Medical Science and Art of the Victorian Era" (first published in The Asclepiad (London) 6:274-300, 1887).

"..... During the third year of his apprenticeship, when he was seventeen years old, he formed an idea that the vegetarian system of feeding was the true and the old; and with a consistency which throughout life attended him, tried the system rigidly for more than eight years. He was a noted swimmer at this time, and could make head against the tide longer than any of his omnivorous friends.

"At or about the same time that he adopted his vegetarian views, he also took up the temperance cause. He not only joined the ranks of the total abstinence reformers, but became a powerful advocate of their principles for many succeeding years. In the latter part of his life he occasionally drank a little wine, but his views on the subject remained to the end unchanged. He retained a strong faith in total abstinence, and a belief that it must ultimately become universal."

I think perhaps someone misread or mistyped that on the other page as "for eight years".

Further along in Richardson' biography there is a little snippet about John Snow and animal experimentation:

"There is yet another trait in his character which I cannot but notice, and which I would respectfully commend to all physiological inquirers.  While he held it as a necessity to use inferior animals for the purpose of experiment, he never touched living thing with the physiologist's finger without having before him some definite object; and never performed experiment on any animal without providing with scrupulous care against the infliction of all unnecessary suffering. The interests of humanity were, he thought, best advanced by the universal practice of humanity."

The John Snow Archive and Research Companion's short biography expands on Snow's conversion in Newcastle in 1827:

During his apprenticeship, he converted to vegetarianism. The book that influenced him toward adopting that diet stressed the disease–causing properties of impure drinking water, which may partly explain his attraction to a water–borne theory of cholera transmission almost two decades later. At this time, he also made a pledge to advance temperance, a cause in which he was joined by several family members and which he would support for the rest of his life.

So, he was influenced by a book about diets... one that was written in or before 1827...?

Reading one of John Snow's papers in the London Medical Journal I discover that he is yet another drug taker (one of many in the medical/psychiatry professions in the history of medicine - referring to Freud's 'On Cocaine').  He may have been well-known for his work in anaesthesia - but perhaps less proclaimed is that he tended to test every substance on himself first.  In his paper "On the inhalation of various medical substances" there is even a picture (right) of an apparatus he designed for burning opium/morphia and inhaling it.

He abstained (mostly) from drinking alcohol and eating animal products... This is perhaps one way to reduce the necessity to test on animals... test on yourself...

Back to the topic... I have found a list of works on Snow on the John Snow Matrix website at Michigan State University.

I found a better biography by Stephanie J Snow - "John Snow M.D. (1813-1858). Part II:  Becoming a doctor - his medical training and early years of practice." published in the Journal of Medical Biography (8 (2000) 71-77).  Here is the section on vegetarianism (I have highlighted any names of people):

Temperance and vegetarianism

During these years, Snow became committed to two causes which were to remain with him all his life: vegetarianism and temperance.  He formed views on vegetarianism after reading several scientific works, one of which was written by John Frank Newton. Newton advocated the diet for its health-giving qualities and its potential for relieving certain types of disease.  The most famous of Newton's converts to the regime was Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Snow initially included milk, eggs and butter in his vegetarian diet. However, after arguing the point with Joshua Parsons, a medical student he shared digs with in London, he converted to a vegan diet. Richardson later commented that:
I have heard him tell that so long as he continued to qualify his vegetables with milk and butter, the vegetarian plan supported him fairly. But on one unfortunate morning, when taking his milk breakfast, some quizzical friend, learned in botany, cross-examined him as to the vegetable on which he was then feeding. The joke went home; and the use of milk, as food for a pure vegetarian, became too absurd  for consistency... although in after life he maintained that an approach to the vegetarian practice was commendable, in that it, kept the body in better tone for the exercise of the mind, he admitted that in his own case his health paid the forfeit of his extreme adherence to an hypothesis.
In 1845 Snow suffered symptoms of renal disorder which were attributed to this diet and during a recuperation visit to his friend, Joshua Parsons, by then general practitioner at Beckington, Bath, Snow admitted that he had been obliged to return to eating animal products.

The temperance movement began in 1828. Temperance was deemed an appropriate partner for vegetarianism and Snow became teetotal in the early 1830s. His belief in the evil of alcohol was so strong that, while a medical apprentice, he refused to use brandy as a curative for cholera, despite medical acclaim for its powers. In 1836 he and his brother Thomas joined the York Temperance Society and Snow's commitment to the principle of temperance continued throughout his life. However, for health reasons, he was forced to include a little wine in his diet from 1845 onwards. He paid an annual subscription to the York Temperance Society until his death, and became Honorary Secretary of the Medical Temperance Society in London in 1845.

So John Snow was a convert from reading John Frank Newton's "Return to Nature: A Defence of the Vegetable Regime" (dedicated to Dr William Lambe).  [Newton's well-known convert to vegetarianism was the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and husband of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein and daughter of Mary Wollstencraft).]  It was published in 1811 and re-published in 1822, which is perhaps the version that John Snow discovered.  The book recommended the vegetable regime for healthy intestines and also suggested that water should be purified (by distillation) - an idea that perhaps influenced Snow's growing theory of the transmission of cholera.

Joshua Parsons is also fairly interesting... he was educated near Abingdon (in the 1820s) (I grew up near Abingdon also), studied and lodged with John Snow in London... and then moved out to Beckington, a small village where one branch of my Slay family have lived since 1904.  And then to Frome.  My grandmother's friend, Raye Young, nee Parsons lived in Frome and passed away recently... I don't know if she moved there because of a family connection or not.. or if they are connected in any way... just pure coincidence perhaps...

(from: "Dr Joshua Parsons (1814-1892) of Beckington Somerset General Practitioner" by Spence Galbraith)

Joshua also wrote that John Snow was at that time a strict vegetarian and recalled a long walk they made  together -

'At the period of our co-residence he was a strict vegetarian, and many and great were the controversies held between us on the subject. These led to trials of our comparative strength and endurance, in one of which, on Easter Monday 1837, we walked to St Alban's, and back to town through Harrow, - a distance, I believe, of rather more than fifty miles. On reaching the Edgware Road, my companion was fairly beaten, and obliged to reach home in an omnibus.'

I will find a copy of Newton's "Return to Nature" and post separately another time.

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