The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

November 16, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): 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.


This kind of book doesn’t really lend itself to my usual “Like”/”Dislike” format, so I’m just going to write a few lines of reaction instead. I thought this sounded like it would be a fascinating read — and for the most part it was. The passages about the severe sanitation problems in 1850’s London were disgusting and fascinating all at the same time. Despite having read plenty of Dickens, I had no idea that people scoured through the sewage as a way to make a living. I guess euphemisms like “night soil” and “pure” (dog poop used in tanning) made the references completely obscure to me!

Back to Johnson: He did a good job of showing how the big cholera outbreak was traced to the Broad Street pump. The details of Snow and Whitehead’s efforts were corroborated by newspaper accounts and their own writings, which did much to bolster the authenticity of this work.

Not so successful, however, were Johnson’s tangential forays into things like the “miasma theory” and the benefits of modern urbanization. Yes, I get that the miasma theory was a big reason why it took so long to identify cholera as a waterborne disease, so a quick summary of the theory was certainly warranted. But I think Johnson spent too much time on it at the expense of, say, talking at length about the damn ghost map that’s referred to in the title!

And the final chapter extolling the virtues of urbanization felt way too self-indulgent for a work like this, complete with authorial intrusions and everything. Was it really necessary for him to attempt to explain how a modern outbreak would be handled? I think we all know that the CDC and other governmental agencies have procedures in place for such occurrences.


Overall, The Ghost Map was an interesting read on many levels and taught me more than I ever wanted to know about non-disposal of human excrement during the Victorian age. But it had some shortcomings as well, which is why I give this title just 3 stars out of 5.

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