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Review: The Ghost Map

Updated: Sep 23

2/5 stars

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson (2006)

This has been on my to-read list for a few years now and I finally got around to it. It didn't occur to me until a few chapters in that, oh yes, I happen to have picked up a book about the most intense outbreak of cholera in Victorian-era London at the exact same time as COVID-19 is spreading around the world, inducing panic. I guess some people might see it as terrible timing, but I don't know, maybe it's perfect timing. I enjoyed it. It plunged me into a world where, yes a lot of people perished, but I personally don't have to be afraid of that specific, preventable bacteria. In fact, I had a dream the other night that COVID-19 was as curable as cholera if caught early enough - just drink a lot of (uncontaminated) water. And I was going around telling people not to worry because we have plenty of potable water around here.


The book is a historical narrative that follows the outbreak and aftermath of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London, and the two men that played a pivotal role in narrowing down the source of the infection - Dr. John Snow, and curate Henry Whitehead, both of whom lived in the Golden Square neighborhood where the outbreak occurred. Much of the book reads like a murder mystery (which, I suppose, it is), following Snow in his detective work to take water samples from the local well pumps, interview locals, and scour the weekly death reports. Eventually, using this information along with insights from Whitehead, he was able to create a map (a ghost map, as it were!) that showed the correlation between individual cholera cases, and walking distance to the Broad Street pump.


Snow convinced the Board of Health to remove the pump handle, despite the fact that most board members still followed the conventional wisdom of the miasma theory - that "bad air" caused diseases, blaming foul smells for the spread of any and all illnesses. (Miasma comes from an ancient Greek word for pollution. The same idea also gave rise to malaria - Italian for bad [mal] air [aria]). Class-ism played a role in this theory, claiming that the filth of poorer neighborhoods kept "unhealthy fogs" lingering above indigent populations, while the "gentile" upper classes remained free of disease. Obviously this was only true in so far as the poorer neighborhoods had fewer services, inadequate sanitary/septic systems, and were overcrowded with people that couldn't afford to take precautionary measures.


Not long after the removal of the Broad Street pump handle, the disease died out in the neighborhood, proving (at least to the modern eye) that cholera is spread through ingesting contaminated water. Johnson discusses the import of this discovery not just in ending the 1854 outbreak, but in spurring the city on to create a better sewage system, and in making possible the "city planet" on which we now live (i.e. the rise of urbanism).


Johnson's claims get a little lofty, and his writing can be a little dramatic, but overall it's an interesting read. The only thing that really drove me crazy was the self-important attitude of, basically, "weren't they all so stupid not to know cholera is waterborne, and aren't we all so smart that we know that now." I tried to skim over the scolding and reprimanding of those poor, "misguided" Victorian-era doctors, government officials, and lay people, with the knowledge that, given another 150 years, human beings will probably be looking back at us thinking, "how dumb were they that they thought (x, y, z)."


There were a couple of super fascinating little facts thrown in that I didn't know, including:


- The discussion of the human sense of smell and the "physiological connection between the olfactory system and the brain's emotional centers." Johnson points out that the miasma theory is based on the fact that our brain has evolved to be on high alert when certain smells - generally those of decay - trigger our disgust. "Disgust at the scent of any of these compounds [putrecine, cadaverine] is as close to a universal human trait as we know."

(I know what you're thinking - then why is Johnson busy berating them for thinking that smells kill? I don't know. He's a little all over the place sometimes. He's like, "I mean, I know exactly why they thought that. But they're so dumb, right?!")


- The fact that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors drank alcohol rather than water (since water was often contaminated), and that because of this, "most of the world's population today is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their tolerance for alcohol."


Now we come to the end of the book. My brother Jason read The Ghost Map recently, and told me not to bother with the epilogue, but curiosity won out. I really should have listened to him. It was confusing, dramatic, alarmist, and a little out-dated. An example:


"If we're going to survive as a planet with more than 6 billion people without destroying the complex balance of our natural ecosystems, the best way to do it is to crowd as many of those humans in metropolitan spaces and return the rest of the planet to Mother Nature." He goes on to say, "By far, the most significant environmental cause that cities support is simple population control. People have more babies in the country."


Oh, ok (do a quick Google search for "Jennifer Lawrence ok gif" to see the face I'm making right now).


He then moves on to discussing 9/11, and a fear-mongering rant about the potential fallout of a nuclear attack and of biological warfare in a large city: "...once the bomb goes off, there's no second line of defense - no vaccines or quarantines to block off the worst-case scenario. There will be maps, but they'll be maps of incineration and fallout and mass graves." (So... now we shouldn't crowd as many humans as we can into cities?)


Honestly, all I can picture is the part in Ghostbusters where they're talking to the mayor about the coming disaster:


Peter: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions. Mayor: What do you mean, "biblical"? Ray: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky! Rivers and seas boiling! Egon: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes! Winston: The dead rising from the grave! Peter: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together - MASS HYSTERIA!


In short, he lost me with this epilogue. My suggestion to Steven Johnson: Stick to writing historical accounts, and forego the armchair philosophizing and playing doctor. My suggestion to readers of this book: For real - just skip the epilogue. It's much better that way.


UP NEXT: Laish, by Aharon Appelfeld

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