Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s