The Pioneers of Epidemiology


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(a) John Snow (1813–1858), British physician and father of epidemiology. (b) Snow’s detailed mapping of cholera incidence led to the discovery of the contaminated water pump on Broad street (red square) responsible for the 1854 cholera epidemic. (credit a: modification of work by “Rsabbatini”/Wikimedia Commons)

OpenStax Microbiology

John Snow was a British physician known as the father of epidemiology for determining the source of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic in London. Based on observations he had made during an earlier cholera outbreak (1848–1849), Snow proposed that cholera was spread through a fecal-oral route of transmission and that a microbe was the infectious agent. He investigated the 1854 cholera epidemic in two ways. First, suspecting that contaminated water was the source of the epidemic, Snow identified the source of water for those infected. He found a high frequency of cholera cases among individuals who obtained their water from the River Thames downstream from London. This water contained the refuse and sewage from London and settlements upstream. He also noted that brewery workers did not contract cholera and on investigation found the owners provided the workers with beer to drink and stated that they likely did not drink water.5 Second, he also painstakingly mapped the incidence of cholera and found a high frequency among those individuals using a particular water pump located on Broad Street. In response to Snow’s advice, local officials removed the pump’s handle, resulting in the containment of the Broad Street cholera epidemic.

Snow’s work represents an early epidemiological study and it resulted in the first known public health response to an epidemic. Snow’s meticulous case-tracking methods are now common practice in studying disease outbreaks and in associating new diseases with their causes. His work further shed light on unsanitary sewage practices and the effects of waste dumping in the Thames. Additionally, his work supported the germ theory of disease, which argued disease could be transmitted through contaminated items, including water contaminated with fecal matter.

Snow’s work illustrated what is referred to today as a common source spread of infectious disease, in which there is a single source for all of the individuals infected. In this case, the single source was the contaminated well below the Broad Street pump. Types of common source spread include point source spread, continuous common source spread, and intermittent common source spread. In point source spread of infectious disease, the common source operates for a short time period—less than the incubation period of the pathogen. An example of point source spread is a single contaminated potato salad at a group picnic. In continuous common source spread, the infection occurs for an extended period of time, longer than the incubation period. An example of continuous common source spread would be the source of London water taken downstream of the city, which was continuously contaminated with sewage from upstream. Finally, with intermittent common source spread, infections occur for a period, stop, and then begin again. This might be seen in infections from a well that was contaminated only after large rainfalls and that cleared itself of contamination after a short period.

In contrast to common source spread, propagated spread occurs through direct or indirect person-to-person contact. With propagated spread, there is no single source for infection; each infected individual becomes a source for one or more subsequent infections. With propagated spread, unless the spread is stopped immediately, infections occur for longer than the incubation period. Although point sources often lead to large-scale but localized outbreaks of short duration, propagated spread typically results in longer duration outbreaks that can vary from small to large, depending on the population and the disease. In addition, because of person-to-person transmission, propagated spread cannot be easily stopped at a single source like point source spread.

(a) Outbreaks that can be attributed to point source spread often have a short duration. (b) Outbreaks attributed to propagated spread can have a more extended duration. (credit a, b: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Florence Nightingale’s work is another example of an early epidemiological study. In 1854, Nightingale was part of a contingent of nurses dispatched by the British military to care for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War. Nightingale kept meticulous records regarding the causes of illness and death during the war. Her recordkeeping was a fundamental task of what would later become the science of epidemiology. Her analysis of the data she collected was published in 1858. In this book, she presented monthly frequency data on causes of death in a wedge chart histogram. This graphical presentation of data, unusual at the time, powerfully illustrated that the vast majority of casualties during the war occurred not due to wounds sustained in action but to what Nightingale deemed preventable infectious diseases. Often these diseases occurred because of poor sanitation and lack of access to hospital facilities. Nightingale’s findings led to many reforms in the British military’s system of medical care.

Joseph Lister provided early epidemiological evidence leading to good public health practices in clinics and hospitals. These settings were notorious in the mid-1800s for fatal infections of surgical wounds at a time when the germ theory of disease was not yet widely accepted. Most physicians did not wash their hands between patient visits or clean and sterilize their surgical tools. Lister, however, discovered the disinfecting properties of carbolic acid, also known as phenol. He introduced several disinfection protocols that dramatically lowered post-surgical infection rates.7 He demanded that surgeons who worked for him use a 5% carbolic acid solution to clean their surgical tools between patients, and even went so far as to spray the solution onto bandages and over the surgical site during operations. He also took precautions not to introduce sources of infection from his skin or clothing by removing his coat, rolling up his sleeves, and washing his hands in a dilute solution of carbolic acid before and during the surgery.

(a) Florence Nightingale reported on the data she collected as a nurse in the Crimean War. (b) Nightingale’s diagram shows the number of fatalities in soldiers by month of the conflict from various causes. The total number dead in a particular month is equal to the area of the wedge for that month. The colored sections of the wedge represent different causes of death: wounds (pink), preventable infectious diseases (gray), and all other causes (brown).

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

Joseph Lister initiated the use of a carbolic acid (phenol) during surgeries. This illustration of a surgery shows a pressurized canister of carbolic acid being sprayed over the surgical site.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: