The Ghost Map, Book Review Example
Words: 1627Book Review
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson is a riveting book on the cholera epidemic which struck London in August 1854 that led to the revolutionary debunking of the “miasma theory.” The book is a work of non-fiction but Johnson approaches the subject with a creative bent. Much of the book reads with all the fluidity of a novel but is at the same time interspersed with interesting scientific facts all of which are presented in colorful and easily digestible language.
One aim of the book for Johnson was to paint a vivid picture of the rise of large cities in our world and the problem presented by the unprecedented gathering of so many people in one area. One of the greatest problems and the focus of this book is that of waste management and sanitation. The cholera epidemics of London were just one repercussion of the disorganization of this rapid growth. One of Johnson’s clear goals is to highlight the irony of the cholera epidemic in paving the way for modern sanitation. As with his last book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Johnson writes that in retrospect this epidemic had positive repercussions for the entire world. Johnson’s third aim was to promote the taking of risk in thoughts and problem solving. The miasma theory of cholera was largely uncontested and the two protagonists were highly criticized for their assertion that cholera was in fact water born. Both men also approached the same problem from different backgrounds- one as a scientist, Dr. John Snow and the other as a concerned and informed member of the community, Rev. Henry Whitefield. By working together they were able to formulate a cohesive solution and Johnson believes this is a necessary key to success in solving the problems of the world today.
The Ghost Map begins with a harrowing description of Victorian London. In 1854 it was in the heart of its industrialization and home to over 2 million people. At that time there were no formal sanitation systems- people threw their waste out of the windows and the Thames effectively functioned as a large sewer. Cesspools were everywhere. Johnson discusses the plethora of now-extinct professions that existed to deal with human waste. This amount of waste, he explains was unprecedented for never before had humans existed in such large numbers in a small area. Some of the statistics on population presented by Johnson are astounding. For example, there were four hundred people per acre within the city. Johnson also explains the miasma theory. It was simply the belief, widely held by the scientific community, that diseases was transmitted through smells not necessarily contact with people. By describing the awful stench of the city- the result of industrialization, human waste as well as decaying bodies in some areas- Johnson shows just how logical the miasma theory must have seemed to those exposed to such seemingly lethal smells.
He goes through the history of the Soho area which was originally a graveyard for plague victims eventually became an elite neighborhood for the rich and royal in the 1600s. A wall was erected through the neighborhood to separate the poorer part of the area from these elite. When the epidemic struck in 1854 it was on the poor side of the wall and reinforced the idea that the reason the poor were dying was that were breathing infected air and living in poor conditions rather than blaming the water.
The narrative of the book is the hunt by Dr. John Snow to discover the true cause of the epidemic and his struggle to persuade the scientific community and more importantly, London officials that the source of the disease was in contaminated water. Reverend Henry Whitehead read of Dr. Snow’s theory and eventually believed that he was correct despite the harsh skepticism he had been met with. With his inside knowledge of the community he helped to trace the source of contamination to the Broad Street pump. The theory of the Broad Street Pump was an especially difficult part of the theory to believe as that particular pump had a reputation for clean and cold water which people travelled from some distance to use. Snow and Whitefield’s proposal that the Broad Street pump handle be removed was extremely politically unpopular but as Johnson points out its timely removal was perhaps the only thing that prevented the death of many more people.
Johnson gives an in-depth description of cholera bacteria, vibrio cholera, how it spreads and the effect it has on the infected human. The actual cause of death is hard to determine but it is a combination of dehydration as the infected body tries to rid itself of all fluids a reduction in blood volume and increased concentration. He describes in grizzly detail the “rice-water stool” diarrhea that afflicts the infected followed by organ failure and hypotension. Most disturbing is that the victim is mentally alert and thus conscious of the pain of cholera up until the very last hours of life. Most die within days and some within 12 hours of contracting the disease. The most interesting point of this section I found was the history of cholera and why London at this time made for such a perfect setting for its occurrence. Johnson points out that it is almost against human nature, a universal taboo as he puts it, for humans to ingest their own feces and that is precisely the way cholera spreads. Once the bacteria finds a host the only way it can spread is through the ingestion of infected feces. The natural human avoidance of eating their own feces kept cholera at bay but the dense population of this early metropolis and its lack of sanitation system allowed for the rapid spread of cholera.
It was Rev. Whitehead who eventually tracked the contamination of the water to the feces of a sick baby from the Lewis family whose mother had dropped its dirty diapers into the local cesspool. This was the perfect scenario for feces to be ingested by people through the drinking water and it also provided an environment for the bacteria to evolve rapidly and lethally because being in the water system it had no disincentive to not produce as quickly as possible.
Eventually Dr. Snow and Rev. Whitehead created a map of the cholera victims, the Ghost Map of the book’s title which showed precisely how close victims had been to the Broad Street well. Johnson points out how obvious the evidence was for a water-borne disease over the miasma theory but at the time it was highly resisted. Once accepted however the result was the construction of the London sewer system which to this day is considered a marvel model of modernity. Johnson also makes several insightful comments on the map as a small look into the lives of individuals during this time. For though the map shows people as simple black marks each family was visited by Whitehead and Snow and throughout the book Johnson highlights the experience of these individuals and their unknowing contributions to history. The result of this is that history is suddenly made real, personal and interesting for the reader.
The concluding chapter and epilogue of the book are less thrilling. Johnson seems to lose his focus while at once hitting home his point a little too hard. He makes a connection with Victorian London and the rise of megacities in the developing world today, saying that they are facing many of the same dilemmas such as disorganized living facilities and lack of waste management. The solutions, he asserts, will also require the same ingenuity and open-mindedness of Snow and Whitehead and he stresses the importance of idea flow between different sectors of society to create innovative solutions. While this point makes sense his references to bio-warfare and terrorism seemed more farfetched. At times his topics seem random and a fervent last attempt to tie many ideas together with too little evidence to really back them up. The conclusion also gets slightly repetitive as he asserts and reasserts the irony of the cholera epidemic to the progress of modern sanitation. The significance of the event is evident enough that there is no need for continual reminders.
In terms of sources it is clear by the sheer number of topics he discusses and the length of his bibliography that Johnson did extensive research for this book. For his description of Victorian London he uses passages from contemporary literary giants such as Charles Dickens. He uses primary sources such as newspaper articles (205) when discussing the press surrounding Snow’s theory. Straying from the immediate topic of the epidemic he also covers many tangent areas such as the history of toilets and sewer systems. The topics are everything from historical to sociological to scientific but all give the reader a deeper understanding of the book’s aim. His use of primary sources is very effective in personalizing this historical event for the reader.
It is this personalization that makes this book an absolute success in my eyes. I believe Johnson’s goal was to show the significance of this epidemic to history but also to do so entertainingly and in this he most certainly succeeded. Not only did Johnson maintain an interesting and engaging writing style through historical and scientific topics that might be bland at first glance but he brought the cholera epidemic to life. By focusing on small events and characters and placing them into their broader historical picture he created a captivating and informative narrative that held my attention unfailingly.
Johnson, S. (2006). The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books.
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