The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is a comprehensive look at the Broad Street cholera epidemic, one of the most intense and deadly diseases to sweep London. The story of where the epidemic originated, and how the impact of its mapping and documentation changed not just what we know now about the disease, but modern day city management, provides a complex and intensive look at how civilization puts its civilians at risk, especially for the poor and poor of hygiene of the 1800s.
If you asked me to write a sentence about the outcome of reading this book, it would be this: I now know more than I ever thought I would about mid-1800s waste disposal, epidemic mapping, and the biological effects of one of history's deadliest diseases.
The disease is already notable in the historical and medical fields - it literally decimated an entire London district during its developmental stages, killing one in ten people on the block - but also in the sociocultural sphere, as this book clearly demonstrates, as it helped revolutionize not just the ways we cope with widespread sickness, but the ways city infrastructure bolsters and protects their high populations. This outcome is only possible, due to the significant amount of data afforded by the extensive notes and documentation taken during the time period, which in itself was a remarkable achievement, and a testament to those in the field at the time a routine sickness was wrenching apart an entire neighborhood.
The deliberately story-centered narrative turned noted anesthesiologist and physician John Snow and his friend and fellow documenter, Henry Whitehead, into a sort of dynamic Holmes-and-Watson type duo. By charting their previously separate investigations, and exploring their original odds against each other - which eventually grew into a lifelong friendship - the book finds two compelling protagonists to face off against the formidable enemy disease.
The act of focusing the plot line - the spread of the disease - through the narrative design of charting the investigations by both Snow and Whitehead, not only does what is primarily a statistical account gain a sense of individuality and character, but also provides a better source of clarity for understanding the actual scope of those affected. Whereas the victims of these epidemics might be reduced to numbers and marks on a map, by displaying their relationship with Whitehead and Snow, they are shown to be fully-fleshed and complex people... a fate not granted when simply analyzing the disease for numerical data and quantifiable severity.
If I do have a primary criticism of the book, it is that the story went a little awry during the final chapter: "Broad Street Revisited," where our author discusses today's modern cities and the terrors that plague them, such as terrorist attacks and modern mutations of the flu. While I do agree it was necessary to help shape what such a disease would look like in a more contemporary setting, in terms of contextualizing what happened and centering the narrative around the importance of urbanization in the past century, the way it was constructed came off as a sort of almost fear-mongering, or a doomsday prediction.
All in all, however, The Ghost Map is one of the more interesting science non-fiction books I've ever read, and written in a style that is exceptionally engaging and keeps the plot moving along at a bright clip, explaining advanced biology, epidemiology, and even sociology in an accessible way, without ever letting it bog down the story. Though the genres are a little different, fans of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which also features a deadly killer in a 1800s city setting, might also enjoy this book.
Final Verdict: Accessible and interesting, while covering a complex and comprehensive host of topics, The Ghost Map is a detailed and data-backed exploration of a deadly epidemic and those who not only helped put an end to it, but successfully changed the realm of science for the better.
What's your favorite science nonfiction read? What kind of science would you like to read more about? Let me know, in the comments below!