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The Hands of John Snow: Clue to his Untimely Death?
  1. Anthony R Mawson
  1. University of Mississippi Medical Center, United States
  1. E-mail: amawson{at}


The accomplishments of John Snow (1813-1858), physician-epidemiologist, inventor, and anesthetist to Queen Victoria, are well documented, but the causes of his untimely death at age 45 remain conjectural. Snow suffered a paralyzing stroke while working on his magnum opus On Chloroform and Other Anesthetics, and died a few days later on June 16, 1858. Snow had a history of renal problems associated with tuberculosis. He also experimented on himself with ether, chloroform and other agents over several years, but whether this prolonged self-experimentation contributed to his early death is uncertain. A photograph of Snow taken in 1857 shows that the fingers of his right hand were swollen. Could this be a clue to the cause of his death? The “modern” view is that Snow's early tuberculosis and associated renal disease led to hypertension, chronic renal failure and stroke. The tuberculosis and renal involvement may have been worsened by vegetarianism and perhaps resulting vitamin D deficiency. However, the renal damage caused by tuberculosis is unlikely to have been progressive. Based on current evidence of renal toxicity associated with exposure to anesthetic agents, it is perhaps more likely that extensive and prolonged self-experimentation with anesthetics over a 9-year period led to Snow's renal failure, swollen fingers, and early death from stroke.

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