Who is Jo(h)n Snow?


The book The Ghost Map chronicles the story of Dr. John Snow and how he stopped a great cholera epidemic in London in the 1800s by mapping out the location of people who died and determining that they all drank from the same water pump. By simply removing the pump handle, people could no longer access the contaminated water and the epidemic ended. However, Dr. John Snow had to work hard to convince people to remove the pump handle; the prevailing theory at the time was that cholera was spread through the air (miasma theory), whereas Dr. John Snow believed that cholera was waterborne. Today, JSI embodies the spirit of Dr. John Snow by working hard to design and implement creative solutions to some of society’s biggest public health problems.

More recently, a different Jon Snow has come into public awareness. Jon Snow is a brave, strong, dashing character on the TV series Game of Thrones, based on the books by George R. R. Martin. One of the most quotable lines from Game of Thrones is, “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” Now, one may think that a fictitious character from a fantasy series would have very little to do with our Dr. John Snow, born in 1813 in York, England, or with JSI, a public health consulting firm, other than a shared name. I beg to differ.

Map of Westeros
London map during 1800’s Cholera outbreak

[WARNING: Spoiler Alert!]

Jon Snow was raised as the son of the Lord of the North of Westeros. As such, he was brought up to fear and loathe the Wildlings, the people who live north of the Wall that marks the end of the Kingdom of Westeros. Jon Snow even joins the Night’s Watch, the brotherhood sworn to protect Westeros from the Wildlings (and the Others). With the Night’s Watch, Jon learns more about the wildlings, and realizes that they are no different than he is; they just live on the other side of a wall. When the Others begin to attack, Jon (who has been elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch) wants to protect and ally with the Wildlings. Jon says of the Wildlings, “They were born on the wrong side of the Wall; doesn’t make them monsters.” Jon recognizes that they are still people who need protection and assistance, despite where they were born.

This line resonated with me, and reflects so much of the work that we do here at JSI. The Others can be seen as a metaphor for disease and the Wall a metaphor for the social determinants of health. The wildlings, by virtue of where they live, work, and play, are at much greater risk for attack by the Others than the people of Westeros. They have to work very hard to secure food, shelter, and safety. This is much the same as we see in our world, where some people are more likely to have poor health outcomes than others. However, Jon Snow, Dr. John Snow, and JSI recognize that what is a threat to one group is a threat to all, and that we all have a responsibility to address those threats. Even though it was difficult, Jon Snow recognized that he could be an agent of change. He was a champion for the wildlings and helped to change the system that unfairly disadvantaged them.

Similarly, JSI’s mission is to improve the health of underserved people and communities and to provide a place where people of passion and commitment can pursue this cause. At JSI, we help to improve health by providing technical assistance and training to support community-based organizations, health departments, and other health organizations to improve services for their clients. We conduct evaluations that show the effect that our clients have on their communities. We facilitate and support organizations’ strategic planning and quality improvement efforts in order to ensure that they can achieve their goal to improve the health of their clients. We work to address the social determinants that cause poor health.

It’s a bit of a stretch to compare Jon Snow’s world to ours, but it can be done. At the very least, it is safe to say that Dr. John Snow, Jon Snow, and those of us at JSI are creative problem solvers working to improve our communities in any way we can. Some of us just happen to have a direwolf to help us do it.