History lessons: Get to the facts

As the number of dead mounted in the cholera outbreak of 1854 in Soho, London, people happily drank from the water supply, wrongly convinced that the disease was spread through the air.

by Dr John Snow
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

But one man brought statistical evidence to the analysis of the disease. Physician John Snow marked on a map the location of each death in the area. The pattern showed fatalities clustered around a water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street), persuading him that this was the source of the outbreak. Snow presented his evidence to the panic-stricken council, who removed the pump's handle to make it unusable. The epidemic was already in decline, but Snow's pioneering analysis played a key part in ridding Britain's slums of the disease. Business has its unexplained problems too - an under-performing team or a new product that just won't shift. As Snow's dedication shows, it pays to ignore common wisdom and apply a bit of targeted analysis. Sometimes that can solve far more than the immediate problem.

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