John E. Branch Jr.'s Reviews > The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
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Jul 24, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in January, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 1

In late August 1854, cholera broke out in an area of London's Soho called Golden Square. Neither the first nor the last outbreak in a large city, this one was different for marking a turning point in mankind's efforts to combat the disease. Employing a subtle scheme of dual organization (which one of his blog posts alerted me to), Steven Johnson divides his account into chapters reporting the day-by-day situation on the scene while also stepping back to illuminate a particular theme or player in the story, chief among them John Snow, a pioneering surgeon and an uncommon version of a common type at the time, the amateur scientist. The result works in a sense like one of the many large-canvas 19th-century novels Johnson quotes from. As expertly as a general (or one of those novelists), he marshals a large cast that includes Snow and parish priest Henry Whitehead as well as Henry Mayhew (author of a groundbreaking study of London's poor), the businesses and residents of Golden Square, other elements of the immense city of London (from water pumps to night-soil men), and especially two competing ideas in the struggle to understand cholera at a time still some decades before the germ theory of disease triumphed. A few harsh notes ("eating excrement" is Johnson's unfortunate shorthand for humans' unknowing tendency to let waste contaminate water supplies) only briefly interrupt the clear and confident progress of his prose.
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