The battle between metropolis and microbe was over, and the metropolis had won.

If you have a weak stomach, this is not the book for you. A fascinating read? Yes! But very graphic in its descriptions of the foulness of Victorian London and the effects of cholera in the human body – in a cool way.

The Ghost Map confirmed that I’m a fan of “microhistories”, those books that analyze society and science through the history of one particular thing, like the HeLa cells in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, honeybees in The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us or cancer in The Emperor of All Maladies. Goodreads has a great list, if you’re interested. Do you have any recommendations?

In 1854 London was hit by a massive outbreak of cholera and a young doctor named John Snow (winter is coming!) decides to study it. So how does one go about tracking microscopic bacteria without the necessary tools? Dr Snow did it by using a fertile imagination supported by a good dose of disciplined observation. It also helped that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – literally.

Dr Snow’s major theory was that cholera was a waterborne disease, and not spread through the air, as it was widely believed at the time. Together with Reverend Henry Whitehead, a man with his finger on the pulse of London’s poorest neighborhoods, Dr Snow starts interviewing the people in the most infected areas and tracing the disease’s timeline. He starts noticing patterns, like the woman who got ill on the other side of town because she had a preference for the water of her old neighborhood. Or the workhouse right in the center of the epidemic that wasn’t affected because they had their own well.

He also noticed that the epidemic had an epicenter: the now (in)famous Broad Street pump, that was contaminated when an early cholera victim’s septic tank was leaking into its water supply. What was only a theory, became a conclusion after Dr. Snow and Reverend Whitehead decided to map the victims and came up with the “Ghost Map”, that would eventually revolutionize not only epidemiology, but also information design (by the way, have you seen the amazing Information is Beautiful site?).

(Dr. Snow’s map – source)

Parallel to the story of the cholera epidemic and both men’s struggle to contain it, Johnson also tackles other related issues, always in an interesting, fresh way: public health, scientific history, urban civic engineering, bio-terrorism and the future of the big metropolis.

Of these, there were two in particular that caught my attention: 1) it’s not often you see someone advocating that the best thing for humanity is to be more concentrated. Johnson makes valid points in favor of the mega-cities that seem unavoidable in our future, and 2) Johnson cleverly uses this epidemic to make a point about the dangers of dogmas in science. It makes me wonder about the grave mistakes we’re committing now. Scientific knowledge has advanced since Victorian London, but not human nature:

No one died of stench in Victorian London. But tens of thousands died because the fear of stench blinded them to the true perils of the city, and drove them to implement a series of wrongheaded reforms that only made the crisis worse (…) practically the entire medical and political establishment fell into the same deadly error: everyone from Florence Nightingale to the pioneering reformer Edwin Chadwick to the editors of The Lancet to Queen Victoria herself.

The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps. But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well.  How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?  How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?

(Broad Street Pump, in front of John Snow pub – source)


Other thoughts: The Little Reader, A Book a Week, One Minute Book ReviewsSophisticated Dorkiness, A Book LoverWorthwhile Books, Sadie-Jean’s Book Blog, Maggie Reads, she treads softly, Jenny’s Books,  Ready when you are, C.B., Books and Many More Books, What Kate’s ReadingRhapsody in Books, endomental (yours?)