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SNOW WAS SEVENTEEN WHEN he read John Frank Newton's essay The Return to Nature: A Defence of the Vegetable Regimen. The argument convinced him that a vegetarian diet would reduce irritation of the intestines and promote personal health. Newton's form of vegetarianism included a fastidious attention to drinking water, purifying it by distillation and testing its purity chemically. Newton's essay convinced Snow that diet, pure water, and a healthy colon were essential to one's well-being.1

Newton wrote Return to Nature to popularize an "important discovery" by the physician William Lambe. Newton, a lawyer, believed that Lambe had shown that all medical and social problems result from "the dire effects on the human frame of animal food, cooperating with that baneful habit, the use of water, or of something more pernicious [fermented drinks], to allay the thirst which that food occasions." When Newton shifted to a "regimen of distilled water and vegetable diet," his chronic intestinal distress disappeared within two years. In gratitude he wrote Return to Nature to make Lambe's hypothesis known to a wide audience.2

The unifying assumption in Newton's essay is that an Edenic fare of fruits and vegetables was created for human consumption and is essential for a full and healthy life span. After the Fall and the discovery of fire, however, humans increasingly partook of cooked meat. The die was cast: "Thirst, the necessary concomitant of a flesh diet, ensued; water [often polluted] was resorted to, and man forfeited the inestimable gift of health which he had received from heaven: he became diseased, the partaker of a precarious existence, and no longer descended slowly to the grave." Newton then offered additional evidence to substantiate his scriptural premise that vegetables (as he called all plant products) are our only natural food, whereas animal flesh is unnatural and unhealthy.3

One who consumes a healthy plant diet needs only an occasional drink of water, but if the water is impure the vegetable diet is undermined. Modern humans had fouled the natural world to such a degree that "common water" near large settlements was invariably impure. In large metropolises like London and Paris, only distillation was foolproof. "Our own Thames water," said Newton (who lived in Chester Street, Belgravia, London), was so polluted by "animal oil" and "septic matter" that every household should use a distillation apparatus such as he had constructed and placed in his own kitchen. Newton discarded the first three gallons of distillate, kept the next ten to twelve gallons of "almost imputrescible" water, and stopped the process when three or four gallons remained at the bottom of the still because of the "residuary filth" it contained. Before drinking he undertook "a test of the purity of water, familiar to every chymist. Drop into a glass of water a few drops of nitrate of lead."4 If properly distilled, the fluid should remain clear; if it turned cloudy, he repeated the distillation.

The recommended breakfast consisted of "dried fruits, whether raisins, figs, or plums, with toasted bread or biscuits [preferably without butter], and weak tea, always made of distilled water, with a moderate portion of milk in it."5 For children the tea was replaced by diluted milk. A typical dinner was "potatoes, with some other vegetables, according as they happen to be in season [in a sauce of Portuguese onions and walnut pickle]; macaroni; a tart, or a pudding, with as few eggs in it as possible: to this is sometimes added a dessert. ... As to drinking," Newton cautioned that "we are scarcely inclined on this cooling regimen to drink at all; but when it so happens, we take distilled water."6 At the time (1811) twenty-five people were actively practicing this regimen, including seven in Newton's own household. The results were promising: All were in good health, use of medicines was rare, and indispositions, if any, were trifling. Because he had tested the vegetable and distilled water regimen on himself, his family, and several friends, he claimed that it "rests on the only firm basis of philosophical conclusions, on Experiment."7

It took Snow several years to find a situation in which he could fully implement Newton's regimen, but then he adhered to it rigidly for nearly a decade and in a modified form for the rest of his life. Obtaining pure water became a dominant element in his personal life and affected his view of public water supplies. Perhaps the prevalence of impure drinking water in his childhood town primed him as a teenager for Newton's alternative. Certainly, when in 1848 he altered his views on the pathology of cholera, he was intellectually predisposed by Newton's ideas to consider the intestines a primary site of infection and impure water a potential source of morbid poisons. Nevertheless, when epidemic cholera first reached England in 1831, he assumed, like everyone else, that it was contracted by inhalation or contact.

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