Steven Johnson The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Hidden Power of Urban Networks (2006)
Steven Johnson has written a very accessible science book. The core of The Ghost Map is a vivid retelling of the outbreak of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic. The birth of modern epidemiology can be traced to the work tracing the source of the outbreak and the (slow, so slow) acceptance that cholera was a waterborne killer. Johnson is a good story-teller and well describes both the signs and symptoms of cholera and the historical background to the disease. It is astonishing how entrenched in the Victorian scientific community was antipathy to believing cholera anything but an airborne disease (a 'miasma'), despite so much evidence to the contrary.
There are two heroes in this story:
Dr John Snow (source)
The first is Dr John Snow (the man who astounded the world by giving Queen Victoria an anaesthetic during childbirth) whose painstaking analysis of the water supply of the Broad Street area, backed up with statistics on its users, led to his remarkable solution to the epidemic when he persuaded the local authority to remove the handle from the Broad Street pump. Cholera had colonised the Broad Street well through sewage contamination.
The Rev. Henry Whitehead (source)
The second hero is the Rev. Henry Whitehead, the local curate, who conducted house-to-house interviews in the area. He is almost doubly heroic since he held an entirely different theory to Dr Snow about the cholera epidemic, but was smart enough and man enough - unlike the rest of the scientific community - to concede that Dr Snow was likely correct and to offer his services in any way they could be used.
"You and I may not live to see the day," Snow explained to the young curate, "and my name may be forgotten when it comes; but the time will arrive when great outbreaks of cholera will be things of the past; and it is the knowledge of the way in which the disease is propagated which will cause them to disappear."
Snow's cholera map showing the clustering
of cholera around Broad Street (source)
As Johnson so well describes, it is a consequence of Snow's and Whitehead's data collection that the ordinary people of Soho have lived on in the historical register:
There is something remarkable about the minutiae of all these ordinary lives in a seemingly ordinary week persisting in the human record for almost two centuries. When that chemist’s son spooned out his sweet pudding, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that the details of his meal would be a matter of interest to anyone else in Victorian London, much less citizens of the twenty-first century. This is one of the ways that disease, and particularly epidemic disease, plays havoc with traditional histories. Most world-historic events—great military battles, political revolutions—are self-consciously historic to the participants living through them. They act knowing that their decisions will be chronicled and dissected for decades or centuries to come. But epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk, following their established routines, not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity. And of course, if they do recognize that they are living through a historical crisis, it’s often too late—because, like it or not, the primary way that ordinary people create this distinct genre of history is by dying.
Johnson also finds a third hero in the "clash of microbe and man that played out on Broad Street for ten days in 1854", where 700 people died. This unlikely hero is, in fact, the villain of the piece: Vibrio cholerae. Johnson has some admiration for that tenacious little bacterium which discovered a wonderful world of opportunity in industrialised, over-populated, under-sanitized ("What are we going to do with all of this shit?") London.
At the end of The Ghost Map, Johnson attempts to extrapolate what we modern city-dwellers might learn from the Broad Street epidemic. I thought this more conceptual section was rather less successful than the cholera narrative, but Johnson's points are entirely valid: living in a modern city extends your life span; simultaneously, any threat to a modern city is "an open invitation to mass killing" whether than be by bacteria or terrorists:
The Twin Towers sat on approximately one acre of real estate, and yet they harbored a population of 50,000 on a workday. That level of density offers a long list of potential benefits, but it is also an open invitation for mass killing—and, what’s worse, mass killing that doesn’t require an army to carry it out. You just need enough ammunition to destroy two buildings, and right there you’ve got a body count that rivals the ten years of American losses in the Vietnam War.
The Ghost Map reminds us that we still live in very frightening times.
If you liked this... I'd like to read more about Snow's anaesthetic experiments. He did quite a lot of them on himself, which may have attributed to his early death. I have a vague recollection of seeing a book about this in a review somewhere...