In 1854, an outbreak of cholera struck the Soho district of London, killing over 600 people. Steven Johnson ’s The Ghost Map paints a vivid and engaging portrait of a community struck by a disease it does not understand and cannot control, and the struggle to develop the knowledge and means to stem the tide of mortality. Even if non-fiction is usually not to your taste, this account of Dr. John Snow’s investigation of the outbreak and the struggles of families and individuals gripped by the disease is engagingly written and well worth a read.
Dr. Snow’s investigation of the cholera epidemic of 1854 became the seed for modern epidemiology. While the story of his plotting cholera cases on a map of the district and targeting a public water pump as the source of the outbreak – ultimately resulting in the removal of the handle of the pump – is well known, it’s not the complete story, and Johnson does an admirable job bringing the sights – and smells of mid-19th Century London to life.
Dramatized narratives of Soho residents’ lives during the outbreak serve for more than background nuance and flavor. Small details – a splash of gin added to water unwittingly killing the bacteria – hint at the much larger developments that the 1854 outbreak led to. Dr. Snow’s struggle to find the focus of the epidemic and then convey his ideas about the pump as the common source to authorities convinced that disease was spread by foul smells, not by water, foreshadows the use of maps and charts to illustrate data and convince the public and policy setters. The use of the map was at the cutting edge of the time: Florence Nightingale used charts and maps to push for the need for sanitation. The field of data visualization, then in its infancy, is an important part of scientific research and public service.
Given the impact of the 1854 Soho cholera epidemic on today’s world, and how the concerns of infectious disease and public health are still with us, the central dramas of The Ghost Map are well worth thinking about. In the final chapters, the author attempts to integrate the lessons of the epidemic with more modern concerns, and although some of his points are worthwhile, others seem like over-reaching attempts at relevancy, when the story of the outbreak, and the impact epidemiology has on our lives is a gripping story in itself. Some of this poorly-integrated theorizing feels like it belongs to another book, and isn’t given enough time for a good, mature argument.
All in all, however, despite the problems of the last chapters, The Ghost Map is a must-read for history buffs, or even fans of historical fiction, to get a feel for the urban atmosphere of the time. At his best describing the Soho outbreak, Johnson strikes a fine balance between exploring the scientific and historical significance of the events and the very human drama of families and individuals in the grip of a deadly disease.
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Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch