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The Ghost Map

     by Johnson, Steven

The Ghost Map

In the summer of 1854, London was ravaged by an unusually violent epidemic of cholera, centered in the densely-populated neighborhood known as Soho. Two Soho residents, Dr. John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, were among those investigating the outbreak, first separately, and then as part of a committee formed by the vestry of St. James' Parish. Dr. Snow had already been studying the disease for many years and had formed a theory that it was spread through water. This most recent outbreak gave him the opportunity to study the course of the disease firsthand, to interview the survivors and friends of the many dead, and to look for patterns that might help him prove his theory. With his data in hand, he was able to persuade the Board of Governors to remove the handle of the Broad Street Pump, the source of the contamination. The legacy of John Snow lay in his research and the visual impact of the map he drew of the area, showing the cases of cholera and their proximity to the Broad Street Pump. 

Author Steven Johnson narrates a story as gripping as any detective fiction, complete with heroes both amateur and professional. Interwoven with the details of the investigation into the cholera outbreak, Johnson gives us a history of the development of cities, the problems of humans living in such densely populated communities, and some solutions city dwellers engineered to provide a healthier environment for themselves. Johnson writes for Wired, Discover, and The New York Times Magazine among other writing pursuits.

Reviewed by mc, 11/2006. Other reviews by mc.