Public Health - biographies

Dr. Robert Baker

Robert Baker was born in 1803 and became apprenticed to a surgeon in 1818. He joined the Royal College of Surgeons in 1828 and became a poor law surgeon in Leeds. Baker's reports on the cholera epidemic of 1831-2 included wide and varied statistical data which gained him notice. His data was also included in the sanitary report of 1842, commissioned by Edwin Chadwick.

His later career was not marked with the success he enjoyed during the period of sanitary reform and he died in 1880.

Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick was born near Manchester in 1800 and moved to London in 1810. As an adult, Chadwick became aware of the problematic prisons, slums and hospitals of the mid-Victorian era. He sought a solution to these deeply rooted social problems and his interest rewarded him with the position of assistant to the Poor Law Commission in 1832.

Chadwick was not generally popular - there were public demonstrations against him and his policies, which included support for the workhouse system.

Chadwick was asked by the government to carry out an enquiry into sanitation and his resulting report - The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population was published in 1842. This report directly correlated poor living and working conditions with illness and disease. The recommendations of the report were not implemented until the Public Health Act of 1848. Chadwick was appointed Sanitation Commissioner and campaigned for fresh clean water and water closets to be installed in every house. Chadwick officially retired from this post in 1854 but continued to campaign for the reform of sanitation and education until he died in 1890.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born in 1812. He began a journalistic career in 1829, eventually becoming a reporter in 1832. His first published story appeared in 1833 and was soon followed by other stories and sketches. After the success of The Pickwick Papers (1837), Dickens became a novelist full time as well as continuing work as a journalist and editor. In 1850, he launched the journal Household Words which was succeeded by All the Year Round in 1859. This he edited until his death in 1870.

During his career, Dickens was a prolific campaigner and was interested in poor law and sanitary reform, often drawing attention to the plight of the working classes in novels such as Oliver Twist and Martin Chuzzlewit. Indeed, in the preface to Martin Chuzzlewit , Dickens stated:

I hope I have taken every available opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor.

Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew was born in London in 1812 and began his writing career as early as aged 16. In the 1820s, Mayhew founded and contributed to the journal Figaro and also wrote a number of plays. In 1841, he co-founded Punch , one of his most important ventures. Personal and financial difficulties affected him throughout his life. However, he still campaigned as a social reformer, publishing London Labour and the London Poor (1851) which remains a seminal study of London life. The study had its origins in a series of articles published in the newspaper The Morning Chronicle from 1849 - 1850.

Mayhew's work helped to shape Victorian social theories and cultural life. He died in 1887.

John Snow

John Snow was born in York in 1813 and was apprenticed to a surgeon at the age of 14. During the 1831-32 cholera epidemic, Snow encountered the disease to which he was to devote his professional life. He began working in London in 1838.

Despite leading on research in many areas of medicine, Snow is best known for his discovery that cholera is a water-borne infection. His work On the Mode of Communication of Cholera was first published in 1849. The second edition (1855) contained statistical information on the case of Broad Street (an outbreak of cholera that caused 500 deaths in 10 days). Snow was able to attribute the deaths to a particular water pump on Broad Street and, after the removal of the pump's handle, cases decreased. However, it was said at the time that this decrease might also be attributed to other causes.

Snow died in 1858 but it was not until the twentieth century that the quality and accuracy of Snow's work and theories were accepted.