Monday, February 21, 2011

The Ghost Map - A Review - London in the Time of Cholera

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
It’s the summer of 1854, and London is seized by a violent outbreak of cholera that no one knows how to stop. As the epidemic spreads, a maverick physician and a local curate are spurred to action, working to solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time. In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a thrilling account of the most intense cholera outbreak to strike Victorian London and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in. Back Jacket of The Ghost Map

Victoria and Albert
 When most of us think of the mid-Victorian Era, we think of Victoria sitting on her throne with her consort, Prince Albert, by her side. Crinolines and low necklines were all the fashion for the women, and facial hair and trousers were the rage for the men. England's elite were dancing the waltz in huge ballrooms under crystal chandeliers lit by candlelight. But in Broad Street in Soho, people were not waltzing, but, instead, were dropping dead in alarming numbers, and no one knew what was killing them.

The opening chapters of Steven Johnson’s, The Ghost Map,* presents a city so filthy as to make one think of the most squalid conditions in a Third World country. Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend gives us a glimpse of London’s poor who made their living on what the River Thames had washed up on its banks, but did it ever cross your mind that some of those people were scooping up dog excrement, a necessary ingredient in tanning leather? Did you know that “night soil” was stored in cellars when privies filled to overflowing? Okay, no more gross stuff. You get the picture. The poor lived in absolute squalor, crammed into inadequate housing, were underfed, and rarely saw a doctor. Because of their abysmal living conditions, they were particularly vulnerable to disease, especially if the pump outside their lodgings was rife with the bacteria that causes cholera.

In 1854, the concept of germs causing disease was not understood, and so when scores of people in Soho started to die from cholera, the powers that be determined that the cause was London’s filthy air, and it was filthy. Dirty, soft coal was the way people heated their homes and the means by which industry within the city stoked the fires of its boilers. Coal ash contains toxins, including arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, and selenium. The “miasma theory” was generally supported because everyone knew that London’s air, especially its pea-soup fogs, could kill those who were susceptible to respiratory illnesses.

However, Dr. John Snow wasn’t buying it. With the help of Rev. Henry Whitehead, a local curate, Snow was able to identify the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street, the only water source for people of that area, and one that drew its water from the grossly polluted Thames.

Dr. John Snow
Along with the victims of the outbreak, The Ghost Map is the story of these two medical detectives, and it really is a medical thriller. We follow the efforts of Snow and Whitehead in their attempts to convince the local council to take the handle off the Broad Street pump in order to prevent the further spread of the disease. But it is also the story of the poor of London, and a glimpse into a time when not everyone was the dancing the waltz or riding in carriages in St. James’s Park. It is compelling reading for anyone interested in learning more about the dark side of Victorian London, and the dawn of the modern metropolis.
Henry Whitehead
*The Ghost Map refers to a map that charts where the victims of the epidemic lived.

Want to know more about this subject, visit Steven Johnson's website.


  1. Living in London during this time would've been frightening and smelly to say the least!!

  2. I think over all living in those times would be frightening. Of course, if you were really born in those times you would not know the difference.
    We often tend to read or sway to the better side of things, or so we think. But there are always different ways and views to look at.
    This book sounds fascinating. I think I will add it to my list. Now off to check out that website.

  3. Staci, I can't imagine what London, esp. poor London smelled like, but I'm glad I'm living in 2011.

    Trez, My ancestors were very poor Irish peasants, but at least they didn't live in the cities. When they came to the US, they worked in the coal mines. Now that's dirty.!

  4. Mary, one of the reasons I love your blogs is for all of the information you give us, especially as it applies to my favorite historical fiction. All of the war detail was one of the things that made "Searching for Pemberley" so fascinating for me.

  5. Lucy, Thank you very much. Glad to oblige.