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Blue Death, The
The Blue Death
As John Snow stood on the streets of York and bid farewell to his father, the air swirled with traces of spring, the odor of horses, and the ever-present reminders of bad sanitation. He climbed aboard the waiting coach with the few items of clothing that his father's meager income could provide, food that his mother had prepared earlier that day, and the improbable hopes of his parents.
The crack of the driver's whip bisected the life of young John Snow. His childhood dissolved into memories as the carriage rattled off the cobblestones of York to the ringing beat of horses' hooves. As he bounced north along the turnpike to Newcastle, his future began.
In time John Snow would reshape medical science, invent the fundamental tools of epidemiology, and redefine our relationship with drinking water. But in that moment, he was just a fourteen-year-old boy, alone in the shadows of the carriage. Through its window, he watched the landscape of the familiar disappear. The year 1827 offered no time for the indulgence of adolescence. He would not see his parents again for seven years.
Snow had come of age amid the poverty that hugged the banks of the River Ouse. As the son of a laborer, he might well have expected to spend his life in a hardscrabble neighborhood like the one into which he had been born. The river brought ships and barges and the opportunity for work, but it was grueling, physical labor that could grind a man to the bone with little chance for advancement. All manner of vermin, human as well as animal, scurried along the riverside. For a child, danger lurked in every darkened corner of the district.
One of the greatest hazards was the river itself. It routinely overflowed its banks, leaving behind dankness and rot. When it stayed within its course, many of the Snows' neighbors along North Street routinely drank its water, oblivious to the hazards it carried.
John's chances of escaping the filth and disease that clung to the working poor in Edwardian England were slim. If the daunting financial, physical, and social realities were not enough, Fanny Snow, the illegitimate daughter of a Yorkshire weaver, was heavy with her eighth child when she put her oldest son on that carriage to Newcastle. The simple demand of supporting such a large family would seem to extinguish any hope of escaping their place at the bottom of the economic ladder. The Snows, however, were not an average working class couple and John was far from a typical son.
The journey to Newcastle began when a six-year-old boy walked down Far Water Lane, turned down a narrow alley, and, for the first time, entered a remarkable world. There in the single room that comprised the Dodsworth School in St. Mary's Parish, John Snow's insatiable drive to understand took root. John Dodsworth, a York ironmonger, had founded three such schools to offer education to the city's poor. The school Snow attended offered only twenty spots for boys between the ages of six and fourteen, selecting only the most talented and deserving children. With three parishes vying for just three or four openings each year, John may well have been the only child from the parish of All Saints Church chosen that year to attend. At Dodsworth School, he could learn to read and write free of charge. Arithmetic, his favorite subject, cost extra.
This was a fortuitous beginning for the bright young boy. For the eight years he attended, his parents not only made do without the assistance of their son, but also scraped together the extra money for his foray into math and science. Once he had completed those early years of schooling, he was ready to take a remarkable next step. John Snow would become a doctor.
The carriage rattled north across the English countryside for twenty-one bone-jarring hours before John Snow rolled through Gateshead, crossed the River Tyne, and rode into Newcastle. The view out the carriage window was unlike anything he had ever seen. The young man from York stared out at the grand metropolis. Great sailing ships lined the river, waiting to carry away the coal that powered the engines of the world and the booming economy of Newcastle. Ahead, on a hill, the castle keep stood watch over the bustling city as the spires of St. Nicholas and All Saints Church pierced the industrial sky.
The carriage left him in the heart of the city. From there John Snow walked up Westgate Street in the shadow of the thick stone tower of St. John's church. There on the hillside, far from the filth and stink of the river's edge, lived the city's well-to-do. He had never seen such fine houses. Now he would live in one. For the next four years, he would stay in the home of William Hardcastle, just across from the church. A surgeon apothecary who had begun his practice in York before moving to Newcastle, Hardcastle was now among the most prominent doctors in the city. For a fee of one hundred guineas, he had agreed to take on Snow as an apprentice.
It seems likely that a hidden hand nudged open the door of opportunity to admit John Snow. The apprenticeship fee alone, roughly thirteen thousand in today's dollars, would have dissuaded even the hardest-working laborer in 1827. Even with the fee in hand, it seems unlikely that an established surgeon would have taken on a poor boy from York as an apprentice. But more than five thousand miles away, in the jungles of South America, John Snow had a friend.
For three years Charles Empson had traveled deep into the Andean rain forest riding mules and small boats hundreds of miles into what would become Colombia. He had braved snakes, poisonous insects, and well-armed thieves and had dined on everything from roast armadillo to tortoise hash. He had come with the engineer Robert Stephenson to search the region's abandoned gold and silver mines for business opportunities.Blue Death, The. Copyright © by Robert Morris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.