May 2024
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Review: The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson

the ghost mapThis history of cholera focuses on one of the last, and most lethally quick, epidemics to strike London. It was one of the last because this time, two diligent men found what they believed to be the cause, and circumstances started to change. The first man, Dr. John Snow, was already a pre-eminent anaesthesiologist who even put Queen Victoria to sleep. The second was a well-meaning clergyman, Henry Whitehead, who was acquainted with many of the victims that got their water from the offending Broadstreet Pump. Johnson takes us through the history of the epidemic and describes precisely how these two men solved the cholera mystery and began a chain of reaction that would have an impact on public health in cities worldwide.

Cholera isn’t a problem that has gone away for us in the modern day world. It’s a disease we keep at bay with a supply of clean water. But before people realized it was caused by dirty water, they believed various theories, including that the poor brought it upon themselves, or that it was caused by noxious air. It’s remarkable to read how tenaciously people who were very highly placed in society clung to these theories, even as evidence started to prove them wrong. They did close off the Broadstreet Pump which caused the cholera, eventually, but they didn’t really believe it was the cause. Not until the “ghost map” was created – a map which outlined precisely who had died from the illness and where they lived – did the connection finally become established between the pump and the outbreak.

In history terms, this is a very compelling book; the end is full of notes and I certainly was keen to learn more after reading. Unfortunately, close to the end, the author starts to go off on some mysterious tangents that become less related to the actual history of the outbreak. He goes on about the new threats to cities, including things like terrorism, and even the advantages and whether they outweigh the risks. It all felt a bit unrelated. It was as though he was trying to connect the history with the modern day, but he didn’t particularly succeed for most of it; the only interesting bit out of this was when he discussed the threats of cholera now, rather than the various other aspects of city life. After all, while cholera did happen because of the cramped conditions in cities, I felt like the rest of the book was more about the illness and general sanitary conditions and less about the city.

Anyway, I still found The Ghost Map to be a very good, and quick, read, a thoughtful look into the sanitary conditions of Victorian London and an illness which still has an effect on many parts of the world today.

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