Book Review: The Ghost Map

Note: This is book 12 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

The Ghost Map

I think I can pretty say that this book by Steven Johnson isn’t going to be for everybody. It tells the story of how several men tried to cope with and understand a massive outbreak of cholera in London during 1854. Yeah, riveting, right?

Actually, it was. In addition to talking about the disease itself (which basically causes death by diarrhea), the book follows the quest of a London doctor named John Snow as he propels the nascent science of epidemiology into its own. Snow went door to door in what was largely considered a doomed neighborhood, gathering information about who died, what their habits were, and most importantly how they got their water. He was working on a theory (one that turned out to be quite solidly supported) that cholera was transmitted via drinking water, and one public water pump in particular: the now infamous Broad Street pump that was befouled because a cholera victim’s septic tank was leaking into its water supply.

This was a time before the germ theory of disease was widely known or accepted, so Snow was more of an underdog and outsider than you might think. The prevailing wisdom of the time was the “miasma theory,” which held that “all smell is disease,” and that cholera and other maladies were literally carried on the wind in the form of smells and bad air. It was amazing how hard Snow and the other main protagonist of the tale, Reverend Henry Whitehead, had to fight against this theory, which was largely taken as fact despite its frequent lack of evidence. But the team’s tenacity and creativity won the day, resulting in the closure of the Broad Street pump, the avoidance of another cholera outbreak, and the iconic map of cholera deaths from which the book takes its name.

In addition to this central story, Johnson talks about related subjects, such as the London underclasses, the sociology and civic engineering of large cities, and the new London sewer systems. (The latter were particularly interesting, since they were built as a means of cleaning up the filth of the city, but they basically just ended up flushing it all into the Thames river and making waterborne diseases like cholera worse.) About the only complaint I have about the book is that it goes off the edge towards the end in what is basically a thinly veiled plug for Johnson’s Outside In project. But in general, the whole narrative proved to be both fascinating and educational. Plus I guess I just love this history of science when it’s presented in a context and with interesting characters.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

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