Monday, October 15, 2007

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

I like epidemiology. Is that weird? I always read the articles about diseases like ebola and malaria when they appear on the New York Times science page, or in The Atlantic. I also like history, especially British history. Thus this book, about the London cholera epidemic of 1854 intrigued me. It tells the story of a doctor, John Snow, who proved that cholera spreads via contaminated water rather than through miasma (“bad air”), which was the prevailing wisdom of the time. He arrived at this theory through careful observation and statistical analysis, and managed to convince the city authorities to remove the handle from a pump in Soho, thereby ending the outbreak and proving his point. His map of the area, which showed the numbers of dead and their connection to the contaminated Broad Street pump was a groundbreaking feat of scientific analysis and communication.

Johnson tells the story of the cholera epidemic well. He manages to make it suspenseful, even though we already know how it ends. He also paints a vivid portrait of mid-Victorian London, a crowded, dirty city where the poor were concentrated in squalid slums like those in Soho where the outbreak occurred.

But wait, there’s more! The book also provides a history of modern epidemiology, and of the waste disposal industry. Without sewers, we’d all still be getting cholera, he says. Indeed Johnson hails the London sewer system (whose construction he describes in loving detail) as one of the engineering marvels of the modern world, far superior (in his eyes) to other feats of the same era, such as the Eiffel Tower, for example.

And Johnson keeps on going! In the last chapter of the book he tries to draw comparisons between the cholera epidemic of the mid-19th century and threats to modern urban life, such as bioterrorism and rogue nuclear strikes. Ack. I really didn’t want to hear about those. His point is that we can address modern threats through the same methods that Snow used on cholera: by paying attention to science instead of superstition, and by being open to new ideas, even if they go against the popular wisdom. I guess so. But really, I was mostly interested in how Snow came up with that idea about the pump handle.

Wikepedia has a good article about Snow and the cholera outbreak. It also has a short article about the London sewerage system.

(Book 45, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Very cool! This sort of thing fascinates me as well. I have to admit, when I hear folks talking about wanting to live a few centuries ago when it was "cleaner," I always say, no thanks, I want my working sewer systems!

Becky Holmes said...

Heather, yes! I always have that reaction too, like NO THANKS. The author makes that point in this book also, that if people were dying of disease in modern cities at the rates they died in the 19th century, that the modern population would be panicked. But the Victorians just accepted that periodic epidemics that killed thousands were a fact of life.

Anonymous said...

I always think about the stench of the olden days. I'm trying to remember the city that stank so bad in the middle ages people could smell it miles away. It was infamous, but now it's just a mid-sized European city not remarkable for much (which is perhaps why I can't remember the name of it!).

I heard a version of this particular cholera story as a radio play. Bill Nighy voiced Dr. Snow. I heard it on one of the BBC channels a year or so ago and of course he was marvelous, as he always is -- Nighy got his start as a radio actor.

Great novel about an earlier cholera epidemic is "The Dress Lodger" by Sheri Holman. Have you read that one, Becky? I quite liked it. I too have a thing for books about epidemics -- I've read quite a few about AIDS, ebola, the plague, influenza. Perhaps because we've all been miserably sick at least once with the flu, we can relate to these tales at least a bit.

Kathleen said...

No you aren't weird, I like these things too, they fascinate me. You may find this book interesting:
Mosquito : a natural history of our most persistent and deadly foe by Andrew Spielman

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