Introduction

Cartographies of Life & Death: John Snow & Disease Mapping

This exhibition marks the bicentenary of John Snow (1813–1858). It celebrates his famous inquiry into the cholera outbreaks of 1850s London, the significance of his work in the field of disease mapping and the lasting benefits for public health today.

Tracing the history of how death and disease have been recorded since early times, the exhibition highlights the improved insights mapping offered into the patterns of disease. The use of maps to present medical and other knowledge was advanced in the nineteenth century when the need to understand unfamiliar epidemics created by the new social and environmental conditions of the Industrial Revolution and the expanding British Empire, was imperative. Trade routes, population movement and topographical features were among the factors that could make a disease knowable when represented on the coordinates of a map.

Snow's knowledge of medicine, the laws of gaseous bodies, the physiology of respiration, and his street-level knowledge of the Soho area where he also lived, led him to deduce that cholera was transmitted by water, not 'miasma' or polluted air, as previously thought. It was the application of cartography though, that gave his complex theory its accessible image and today summarises a powerful story of how cultural, social and political beliefs can act as barriers to scientific knowledge and understanding.

The exhibition is organised in three main sections: Urban Legend examines the context that Snow's pioneering work emerged from; Uncharted Territory looks at the impact of growing public information systems on ideas and beliefs and Mapping Out looks at later examples of mapping in public health. Contemporary artworks are woven throughout.

Conceived as a disease mapping 'detective' trail, the exhibition invites you to chart your own journey of discovery through historical and contemporary material, contemporary artworks, and on and off-site events, using the printed or mobile maps. Plotted around multiple oppositional themes, the exhibition asks us to reflect on how art and science, the historical and the contemporary, life and death intersect to reveal hidden relationships.

The printed and mobile maps link the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with nearby Soho, the site of Snow's seminal Broad Street map.