SIMON, Sir John (1816-1904)
Plaque erected in 1959 by London County Council at 40 Kensington Square, Kensington, London, W8 5HP, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Surgeon, Public Health Officer
Medicine, Philanthropy and Reform
SIR JOHN SIMON 1816-1904 Pioneer of Public Health lived here
The pioneer of public health Sir John Simon has a blue plaque at his former home at 40 Kensington Square, where he died in 1904.
PUBLIC HEALTH PIONEER
Sir John Simon was born in the City of London in 1816, the son of second-generation French immigrants. He trained as a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital and went on to hold surgical posts there and at King’s College. It is for his work in public health, however, that he is best remembered.
Having made his name three years earlier with a paper on the thymus gland, Simon was the inaugural appointment as Medical Officer of Health to the City of London in 1848. The City was seeking to maintain its independence from the public health legislation which was then being promoted by Sir Edwin Chadwick, and hoped that Simon’s relative lack of expertise in sanitary matters would distance them from these centralising reforms. Simon, however, proceeded to publish scathing annual reports about the City’s health conditions, which were well publicised by The Times. Written with passion and supported by meticulous use of statistics, Simon’s wide-ranging reports did much to set the model for public health roles.
CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER
In 1855, following the retirement of Chadwick, Simon was appointed Chief Medical Officer to the Board of Health. In this role he conducted one of his most important pieces of research in public health: building on the work of John Snow, he established with greater confidence the link between cholera outbreaks and faecally contaminated water.
Simon also commissioned a series of annual reports, which introduced the findings of the growing number of scientists and investigators who worked with him. Most notably, he drew on the work of his assistant, EH Greenhow, to investigate how disease was affecting particular sectors of the population and particular localities. Many of these findings led to further studies on occupational health, the prevalence of diseases in certain social institutions, and the nutritional status of the population.
INFLUENCE ON POLITICAL IDEOLOGY
Among Simon’s admirers was Karl Marx, who reproduced tables from Simon’s reports in the first volume of Capital (1867), in order to demonstrate the inadequate nutritional intake of the English working class.
In 1890 Simon published English Sanitary Instiutions, a historical polemic which placed public health alongside other social and political reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and voting reform bills. His ideas were influential among Fabian socialists, particularly Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who saw in his work the potential for the state to have a much greater role in medicine. Simon himself, however, didn’t subscribe to socialist politics, seeing sanitary improvements more as an act of philanthropy or ‘practical Christianity’.
His plaque was proposed in 1956 by Dr JA Scott, then the London County Council’s Chief Medical Officer, who asserted that Simon had ‘perhaps more than any other one individual… moulded the form which the public health service of the country has taken’.
Simon moved to 40 Kensington Square partly to please his wife Jane, née O’Meara (1816–1901), an inveterate social animal who was not enjoying life in far-flung Blackheath. In Simon’s time the house’s interior décor was a product of the advanced artistic social circles in which he moved, with William Morris wallpaper and paintings by the likes of JMW Turner and John Ruskin. The atmosphere was said to be ‘overwhelmingly cerebral’, and Simon’s young nieces and nephews were ‘cowed by Aunt Jane’s formidable appearance and ferocious intelligence, and amazed by Uncle John who quoted poetry at such length’.
Simon died at the house in 1904 and was buried at Ladywell cemetery in Lewisham.
Read more about Sir John Simon at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.