It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure—garbage removal, clean water, sewers—necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.
Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World is well-written and vigorously researched. Part historical detective story, part medical mystery thriller, the nonfiction piece revolves around the cholera epidemic of 1854 and is an insightfully gripping read with some weakness in the author’s tangential tendencies.
The first portion of the book is stellar. Johnson vividly details everyday life, the sights, and particularly the smells of Victorian England. The reader is transported into the tale, witnessing the overflowing cesspools and gutters, smelling the reek of the London slums, understanding the science, public opinion, geography, and infantile infrastructure of the day. The two key figures of the epidemic,local doctor John Snow and assistant curate Henry Whitehead, are brought to life on the pages—as well as their originally opposing opinions of the disease spreading by water and by air—as fully developed characters taken from the pages of history.
The story suffers from the author’s repetitiveness and in his tendency toward conjecture. The numerous tangents he ventures down are oft times unrelated to the subject matter and bog the narrative down. The last chapter ventures away from Victorian London’s cholera epidemic entirely to discuss the social and health consequences of the rise of cities.
Johnson’s nonfiction work is an intriguing read that tackles modern urbanization and the resulting health challenges. The Ghost Map is a tale that is in turns lively and tedious and explores the harrowing events and bright minds that ushered in the modern study of epidemiology.
Recommended for fans of nonfiction, particularly nonfiction that focuses on medical mysteries, outbreaks, and science, with the caveat that the author’s repetitiveness and tangents weakens the narrative