The fascinating true story of a doctor and clergyman who defied the establishment view that cholera was an airborne – not waterborne — disease
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, 299 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Did you know that the doctor who gave chloroform to a grateful Queen Victoria during childbirth also helped to end a cholera epidemic? I didn’t. And details like this abound in Steven Johnson’s fascinating history of how two men took on the medical establishment after cholera erupted in London in 1854.
The Ghost Map reads at times like a cross between The Hot Zone with The Professor and the Madman, a medical horror story set in a gaslit city that bred disease and superstition. Johnson begins, unpromisingly, with a dozen pages on the difficulty of human waste disposal in a metropolis that had two million residents. But he quickly gets on top of his story of an epidemic that began when a mother tossed out a slop bucket in which she had soaked a sick baby’s diapers. From then on his book moves swiftly until he tries in the last chapter to extrapolate from cholera to modern threats such as suicide bombers and nuclear winter. This polemical leap is ultimately much less persuasive than what has come before it – a well-told tale of how a doctor and an Anglican curate changed the view of one of the world’s most feared diseases.
Best line: “At the height of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, a thousand Londoners would often die of the disease in a matter of weeks – out of a population that was a quarter of the size of modern New York. Imagine the terror and panic if a biological attack killed four thousand otherwise healthy New Yorkers over a twenty-day period. Living amid cholera in 1854 was like living in a world where tragedies on that scale happened week after week, year after year.”
Worst line: Any line that shows Johnson’s promiscuous use of the word “irony,” which he turns into a one-size-fits-all substitute for “sadly,” “oddly,” “coincidentally” or “paradoxically.” For example: “The sad irony of his argument for the waterborne theory of cholera is that he had all the primary medical explanations in place by the winter of 1848–1849, and yet they fell on deaf ears for almost a decade.” That is a sad fact, not a sad “irony.” Would you write, “The sad irony of Jan Harayda’s post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade level is that she did this on November 16, 2006, and yet it fell on deaf ears for almost five months and Albom continued to sell books at a frightening rate”?
Recommended if … you like popular history, especially books about the history of science or medicine, such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude.
Furthermore: Johnson also wrote Everything Bad Is Good for You.
Editor: Sean McDonald
Published: October 2006
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.