February 2007

Rachel J. K. Grace

nonfiction

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

To nonfiction book writers: if you want your book to sell, make huge, dramatic claims with your title and/or subtitle. If you want your book to be a bestseller, you actually have to fulfill those claims. Steven Johnson has done both, again and again. Johnson is the author of several books, including the acclaimed Everything Bad is Good for You and the recently published The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. See what I mean about those titles?

The Ghost Map is about London’s 1854 cholera epidemic. What we know now that they did not know then is how cholera is caused, transmitted, and treated. As you can imagine, not knowing was a bit of a drawback. They had their theories, though none were proven and many were laughable in terms of modern science and medicine. The most common theory of the day was that the disease was being transmitted through the atmosphere. But that just did not seem quite right to one doctor, Dr. John Snow. Johnson retraces Snow’s research and reveals the prevailing attitudes and lack of knowledge that Snow had to wrestle with to make his monumental discovery: that the disease was being transmitted through the water supply, which had been contaminated by the sewer system.

Snow was assisted in his research by Reverend Henry Whitehead. Many years passed before Snow’s hypothesis was accepted by the scientific community. Snow prophetically said to Whitehead, “You and I may not live to see the day, and my name may be forgotten when it comes; but the time will arrive when great outbreaks of cholera will be things of the past; and it is the knowledge of the way in which the disease is propagated which will cause them to disappear.” As Johnson claims on the book’s cover, Snow’s discovery did lead to worldwide change: in medicine, science, cartography, sewage management, and more, which in turn lead to many changes in how cities function and city-dwellers live.  

Reading this book was kind of like one long, “Whew!” Johnson is a sharp writer who is able to state his thesis and make his point in a clear and interesting way. It is ridiculous how much I learned by reading this book. Still, in some ways I felt like the bulk of the manuscript was a (necessary) prelude to the conclusion, which packed quite a punch. In the conclusion, Johnson describes how Snow’s discovery lead to increased city density and how that density teamed with modern technology and engineering put us at even greater risk than the risk once posed by cholera. Super-viruses and biological weapons are scary, but nuclear weapons are the biggest threat. Johnson makes a convincing case for drastically reducing or eliminating the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

It may seem that the book ends like a really bad acid trip, but readers will feel empowered by their new-found knowledge. Understanding how we got to where we are is a step toward fixing the mistakes we’ve made. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem, but in this case the first step is reading The Ghost Map.
 
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books
ISBN 1594489254
320 pages