Source: Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2006.
The Ghost Map The Story
of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and
the Modern World
by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, New York, 2006. ISBN: 1594489254.
By Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the
Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money."
IF every great city resembles a living organism,
then mid-19th century London was an ungainly and careless youthful giant with
appalling personal habits. As Steven Johnson makes nauseatingly clear in the
grim and gripping early pages of "The Ghost Map," the stench of human excrement
sanitary engineering and the modern science of waste management. In the
1850s, the world's largest city didn't have a functional sewage system.
In addition to home cesspools, backyards and basements were often used
as dumping grounds. The widespread use of the water closet only made
things worse: Human waste was thoughtlessly flushed from these indoor
toilets directly into the River Thames, fouling the city's drinking
water source beyond measure. Unsurprisingly, infectious diseases thrived
in such an environment: smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and, most
devastating of all, cholera.
|'Deaths Dispensary': The
cholera epidemic was traced to a contaminated water pump which shored up
the theory of waterborne contagion.
"The Ghost Map" charts the London cholera epidemic
of 1854, from which Johnson extracts a saga of human ingenuity and true communal
effort. Tellingly, no single savior or miracle worker emerges from the ordure.
He shows how "the connectors and entrepreneurs and public characters who make
the urban engine work at street level" saved the city from itself. Indeed, the
seeming chaos and deep interconnectedness of urban life, the very conditions
that create an epidemic, can also contribute to its cessation or cure, he
If your cesspool was overflowing, you called the
"night-soil men," a new class among the recyclers who emerged to remove the
waste to outlying farms as London's population swelled. "We're naturally
inclined to consider these scavengers tragic figures, and to fulminate against a
system that allowed so many to eke out a living by foraging through human
waste," Johnson acknowledges. "But such social outrage should be accompanied by
a measure of wonder and respect: without any central planner coordinating their
actions, without any education at all, this itinerant underclass managed to
conjure up an entire system for processing and sorting the waste generated by
two million people."
In other ways, the London of 150 years ago will feel
oddly familiar to readers today. Johnson records eerie intimations of
gentrification: The kind of people we call bohemian now, poets and painters
mostly, were moving into Soho, a neighborhood that had been abandoned by the
upper classes. "[D]espite — or perhaps because of — the increasingly crowded and
unsanitary conditions," Johnson writes, it was "a hotbed of creativity."
Naturally, the neighborhood was a potential hotbed
of disease as well. During the summer of 1854, a fierce and systematic cholera
outbreak ravaged Soho: On one day alone, 70 people died in a single parish.
The cause was as plain as the nose on your face,
according to the conventional wisdom of the day. The majority of physicians and
scientists, along with many social reformers and concerned members of the
clergy, firmly believed that disease spread through polluted fumes and toxic
aromas, not peer-to-peer contact.
Although there were practically as many theories
about the causes of cholera as there were cases of the disease, the dispute was
largely between two camps: "the contagionists and the miasmatists. Either
cholera was some kind of agent that passed from person to person, like the flu,
or it somehow lingered in the 'miasma' of unsanitary spaces," Johnson writes.
"All smell is disease," Edwin Chadwick famously
declared. London's sanitation commissioner at the time of the outbreak, Chadwick
was hapless if typically well-intentioned. Even Florence Nightingale, whom the
author calls "the Victorian age's most beloved and influential medical figure,"
fell under the miasmatists' sway. Johnson is sympathetic to their high-minded
motives if somewhat merciless about the tragic ineffectiveness of their efforts.
The most vocal advocate of the contagion theory was
a maverick named John Snow. A farmer's son, Snow transcended humble origins to
become a medical polymath: practicing physician, pioneer in the field of
anesthesia, contentious contributor to medical journals, lecturer and
researcher. Snow studied the Soho epidemic and eventually backtracked it to a
water pump on Broad Street. But he wasn't working alone. Henry Whitehead, a
local curate with uncommon access to the neighborhood and unquestioned empathy
for its residents, went house to house collecting data about residents' daily
habits and the incidence of the disease, information Snow used to shore up his
controversial theory of waterborne contagion. Whitehead was a miasmatist when
they met, though he wouldn't remain one for long. "His religious values had
brought him into close contact with the working poor," Johnson writes of the
urban minister, "but they had not blinded him to the enlightenments of science."
Drawing on Whitehead's data, Snow plotted a
demographic death map. Put simply, this "ghost map" contrasted human behavior
with geography, establishing that cholera deaths were clustered in houses within
walking distance of a water source that proved contaminated. Snow and
Whitehead's efforts captured "a deeper truth by putting it on a map." And for
the first time, according to Johnson, a map became a triumph of information
design and epidemiology as well as a rare documentation of "street level
"This is how the great intellectual breakthroughs
usually happen," he writes. "It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka
moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent,
as standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton's famous phrase. Great
breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate
tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough … [to]
see around the conceptual obstructions of the age."
However, the map "didn't solve the mystery of the
outbreak," Johnson writes. "It didn't lead to the pump handle's removal and thus
bring an end to the epidemic." So, although "The Ghost Map" starts off with the
brisk pacing and the suspense of a detective novel, it has no dramatic payoff.
The story has a happy ending in that London got a sewage system — the most
advanced and elaborate in the world — up and running by 1865. But this gradual
(and realistic) resolution hardly disappoints.
In his previous book, "Emergence: The Connected
Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software," Johnson brilliantly posited ideas
about the organization of systems from the bottom up. In "The Ghost Map," he
reveals just how those principles actually work in a messy, constantly
decomposing real world. With this, his fifth nonfiction book, Johnson adds a new
and welcome element — old-fashioned storytelling flair, another form of street
knowledge — to his fractal, multi-faceted method of unraveling the scientific
mysteries of everyday life.
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