Book 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
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Steven Johnson Riverhead Press/Penguin Group (2006)
The Paradox of Water: It’s both the problem and (no pun intended) the solution
The title refers to a document that John Snow, a physician, devised after the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in the 1840s. Its purpose was to help him locate the local source of the deadly virus. That information is best revealed within the riveting narrative during which empirical thinkers such as Snow were opposed by advocates of the miasma theory (i.e. that contamination is atmospheric), thoroughly discussed in Chapter 7, “All Smell Is Disease.”
Steven Johnson tells a great story and, like all other great stories, this one also has a cast of memorable characters (notably Snow, Henry Whitehead, William Farr, Benjamin Hall, and Edwin Chadwick), a sequence of highly dramatic plot developments (as well as subtle ones, equally significant), conflicts that create escalating tension and increased reader interest, and eventually a climax at which time this reader (at least) felt exhausted, unkempt, and somewhat toxic.
Of special interest to me is how skillfully portrays the setting less as a metropolitan area, within which more than two million people and countless livestock are crammed, than as “a natural organic process,” a living organism, an alien creature, indeed a monster. As I read the material that focuses on the human devastation, I was reminded of the whatever-it-is in the film,Predator.
Victims of the plague proceeded from a “healthy, functioning human being to a shrunken, blue-skinned cadaver in a matter of days” after Vibrio cholerae is ingested, finds its way to the small intestine, and “launches a two-pronged attack.” Residents in the Broad Street area tended to be either dead or not dead yet. What was it like? “Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours…Imagine living with that sword of Damocles hovering above your head – every stomach pain or watery stool a potential harbinger of imminent doom.”
Credit Johnson with creating a multi-disciplinary narrative (a page-turner, really) during which his reader is provided with relevant elements of history (including biography), sociology, economics, medical science, and law. Meanwhile, the outbreak “shed light on the poverty and despair of inner-city life, illuminating everyday suffering with the bright light of extraordinary despair. Whitehead had the story half right: the terrifying visibility of the outbreak did in fact sow the seeds of a cure. But it was not divine providence that drove the process. It was destiny.”
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.