Cartographies of Life and Death: John Snow and Disease Mapping

Matthew Reisz visits an exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of a pioneering epidemiologist

March 14, 2013

One of Britain’s great scientific pioneers is being celebrated in an exhibition featuring street lectures, artworks mapping the scents of London and a pop-up water bar.

John Snow (1813-58) is widely regarded as the founder of modern epidemiology for his work tracing the origins of a cholera epidemic to a particular pump in what was then Broad Street in London’s Soho. To celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) turned to the Artakt team at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, whose researchers and curators have been working on the frontiers between art and science since 2001.

“Snow is best known for the Broad Street map,” exhibition curator Julie Hill explained, “so that seemed like a strong concept to take forward. We went to the archives of the LSHTM to look at their collection of material such as disease maps, which have seldom been put on public display before.”

Ms Hill examined maps and printed ephemera from the Wellcome Library, Museum of London and London Metropolitan Archives.

“Since the London School is very close to Soho, that gave me the idea of including site-specific live art events,” Ms Hill added.

“We were keen to make clear how ingrained maps have become in public health,” said Chris Grundy, lecturer in geographical information systems at the LSHTM. “Snow’s [map] is probably the most famous disease map ever made, but ever since we’ve used maps to link information and to show environmental factors, such as land use, elevation and rainfall, which often have an impact on the spread of diseases.”

One example on display at the LSHTM is a hand-drawn map of the spread of sleeping sickness in the Congo in 1907, which alarmed the British government by showing that the disease was moving rapidly towards a gold- mining community. Also on view is a map of the widespread cholera outbreak at the time of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, produced by Médecins Sans Frontières.

The exhibition, Cartographies of Life and Death: John Snow and Disease Mapping, runs until 17 April and incorporates a number of specially created artworks.

Drawings by Anne Eggebert, senior lecturer in fine art at Central Saint Martins, for example, use Google Earth to record more than 100 outbreaks of cholera across the world since last September.

She is also joining forces with artist Sarah Cole for a series of weekly events designed to “return five different kinds of knowledge to the street of Soho”, with a tarot reading, scientific lectures and even a mezzo- soprano performing Rudyard Kipling’s Cholera Camp ballad.

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