The Ghost Map:
The Story of London's
Most Terrifying Epidemic ---
And How it Changed Science,
Cities, and the Modern World

Steven Johnson
The Ghost Map is ostensibly about the good Dr. John Snow. Snow was one of the first to propose that the cholera which arrived (yet again) in London ... did not come through the air, or the spirits, but was in the drinking water.

Since no one could see vibrio choleræ, people had, since Roman times, believed that foul air was the causative agent. Miasmas: the stink of the city, the offal and dead animals and trash and shit put about the streets and back yards daily by over a million people.

As Johnson writes, the belief in miasmas came from human's profound sense of smell, a sense so profound that "...a certain class of extreme smells triggers an involuntary disgust response that effectively short-circuits one's ability to think clearly --- and produces a powerful desire to avoid objects associated with the smell." Just think of last summer's subway ride where the bum standing next to you possibly had done something bad in his pants ... and how you moved quickly to get away from him. In Spanish it's called Fuchi!

It's all as plain as the nose on your face. The putrid smell was and to some degree is the villain. Beesties in the water? London's Broad Street water was famed for its clarity and good taste. It certainly didn't stink, thus it was pure. The theory of germs had not yet been invented. What you couldn't see couldn't hurt you. Unless it was divine ... or came straight from the Devil.

Snow did a painstaking study of those who were drinking from the communal water source. And he made a map of his findings. The map showed the proximity of the victims to the Broad Street pump. It was a fine piece of cartographer's art, as well as an even finer piece of detective work. In a city of so many, 500 dead in two weeks is not all that spectacular, but cholera had come before; and would come again.

§     §     §

The Ghost Map may be a treatise on cholera and, as well, is the story of a very perceptive scientist. It is also a very careful study of waste management. London's garbage and sewage were policed by those who were merely paid by their gatherings: 100,000 people, "bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen."

This book treats with not just a single epidemic, or a perceptive medical sleuth. It is a treatise, among others, on the birth of public health and hygiene. It is also a fascinating tale of how people have learned to deal with their own shit over the centuries. It is --- further --- a study in Darwinism: how bacteria can evolve, quickly and artfully, to create more victims.

Asiatic cholera creates massive diarrhea which can kill a person within three hours, from dehydration. This was the terror of it. A vigorous man, woman, or child could, in a matter of hours, literally turn blue and die from a mysterious sickness that, it was thought, came from nowhere.

Snow was one of the first to map a city not by its landmarks or streets but by its deaths from plagues. By building his case so graphically, cities across the world would, in the years to come, began the process of protecting their denizens from the products of their own wastes.

§     §     §

We like this one just fine, The writing is a treat. But a good editor would have slimmed Johnson's repetitions a tad (we got the point about miasmas several times). A good editor also would have slimmed down the title: twenty descriptive words is just too much for our antique Dewey Decimal filing system. At this rate, soon titles will be a whole book, commencing on the cover, continued to page one, two, three, four ... running on to page 300 or so.

--- Louise French
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