Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Title: The Ghost Map

Author: Steven Johnson

Blurb: It’s the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.

My Thoughts

While I admit it’s a tad morbid to read a book about a historical disease outbreak in the middle of a present-day disease outbreak, The Ghost Map has been on my radar for a while, and I already had a copy, so I went ahead and picked it up anyway. And I’m pretty glad I did, because not only did it provide me with an in-depth look into the horrible history of cholera and how it was ultimately defeated through the use of modern sanitation engineering, but the book also made some excellent points about how competing theories of disease hampered the handling of cholera outbreaks across the decades. Hm. Sounds familiar.

Anyway, The Ghost Map is centered around a shockingly deadly outbreak of cholera that took place in a poor neighborhood of London the mid-19th century, resulting from the contamination of a public water pump on Broad Street. At the time, the germ theory of disease was still a few decades off, and the most common belief among the age’s experts were that diseases were caused by “miasma,” aka bad air. So there was a false belief that areas with smelly air or overall poor air quality were teeming with dangerous diseases, like cholera.

The book gives a detailed look into how that false view of disease began to gradually change in the latter half of the 19th century, after the outbreak at the Broad Street pump, which was heavily investigated by a pioneering doctor named John Snow (yes, really) and a priest named Henry Whitehead, who worked in the area where the outbreak occurred. While the results of their investigation—which effectively proved the pump had been contaminated by a nearby cesspool—didn’t immediately change the minds of the “miasmatic establishment,” it did help gradually erode belief in the miasma theory of disease in the following decades.

Today, the report that was generated by Snow about the outbreak, which included a detailed map showing how the outbreak was concentrated around the Broad Street pump (hence “The Ghost Map”), is now regarded as a major stepping stone in the development of modern disease outbreak investigation techniques.

Given the heavy scientific topics, this book could have been kind of a slog to get through, but since it’s largely written in a narrative fashion that centers around Snow and Whitehead’s investigation into the outbreak, it held my attention throughout while delivering a lot of important historical context for how diseases were viewed at the time. The book manages to cover not only erroneous theories of disease and how those theories negatively affected disease handling by the government, but also exposes how many in the upper crust tended to blame diseases on the poor for, essentially, being poor.

Between the thorough explanation of how exactly cholera works, how Snow and Whitehead’s investigation empirically proved the cause of the outbreak, and how those two topics intersected with the social mores and failings of the middle Victorian period, the book produced a very engaging narrative that never lost my interest.

Overall, despite the morbid topic, I really enjoyed The Ghost Map.

Rating: 4/5