The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson
9/10, Fascinating examination of the causes, revelations, and impact of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic in London
I secretly love the science of epidemiology: tracing the cause of a disease by looking at the patterns of how it spreads. The modern father of the science is John Snow, a British physician, and his seminal case was a cholera epidemic that struck the London slum of Soho in 1854. In order to prove his theory that the disease was transmitted by water, he created a map of the area showing cases of cholera in relation to the pumps that dispensed fresh water to the neighborhood. The prevailing theory of the time was that disease was spread by foul air, or a “miasma,” and the Board of Health authorities were so fixated on this theory that even Snow’s map did little to convince them.
“Ghost Map” traces the life of Snow and his partner in the investigation, Reverend Henry Whitehead, as well as the life of the small community that was devastated by cholera. Johnson views cities as life forms, their residents the “cells” that contribute to the overall health of the whole. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is the opening section, in which he discusses the organically developed solution to the problem of recycling waste (human and otherwise) in London.
The book chronicles not only the spread of an epidemic, the birth of a science, and the lives of two remarkable men; it also traces our migration from an agrarian life to an urban life, with all the benefits and challenges that accompany that change. Johnson sees the response to the Broad Street epidemic as a turning point, where cities began providing solutions to their own problems. His overview of those problems and benefits is just another wonderful piece of this work.
For the writer in me, this book is a reference I will keep around. If I have questions about cities in Renaissance or Victorian-era times, or thoughts about what problems future cities might solve more effectively than we have today, I have only to pull out “Ghost Map” for a refresher. It’s hard to find intimate details of life in those early cities without reading through a Dickens novel, but here again “Ghost Map” proves valuable. And finally, the portrait of the two investigators, as well as the forces arrayed against them, is a wonderful character study.
Anyone interested in epidemiology, disease, Victorian-era society, city life, or simply a good story will love this book. Just don’t discuss the finer details of cholera transmission over dinner.