March 1, 2013
Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map. New York, Penguin, 2006.
The expansive growth of industrial London awakens an epidemic that seems to kill indiscriminately. Cholera is a disease that had no discernible cause, much less a cure, during the nineteenth century. People are dying regardless of their social class or living conditions. Looking for a method to the madness that is cholera, Doctor John Snow begins a quest to investigate the spread of the disease throughout a neighborhood in London and find its source. Snow’s drive to explain the outbreak puts him into direct competition with state run public health departments who do not like to be proven wrong. Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map Chronicles Dr. Snow’s investigation of the rapid cholera outbreak in Golden Square, using contemporary accounts to outline the thought processes of Dr. Snow and his opposition. Johnson also uses these accounts to tie anecdotes into the story that give us an idea of daily life in Victorian London as well as relating this period in history to modern events. Johnson paints the reader a picture of the crowded impoverished conditions of London during the Industrial Revolution. The situation is so dire that many people collect dung just to try and make a living. Public water sources are often contaminated with waste products that overflow from outdated sewage systems. It is near one of these water pumps, on Broad Street, that the story truly begins. An infant contracts cholera and her soiled diaper is thrown into a cesspool starting a chain reaction that will leave over seven hundred people, in a single neighborhood, dead. Reverend Henry Whitehead is a local priest that lives in the area. At the beginning of the outbreak he visits the sick and offers prayers and condolences without a major interest in the cause of this spread of cholera. At the time many diseases were thought to propagate through contaminated air, or miasma. While Whitehead is having personal experiences with the infected, Dr. Snow is preparing to investigate the rapid spread of this disease. It is worth noting that Dr. Snow was already one of the most accomplished physicians of his day. He was a pioneer in the field of anesthetics and even treated Queen Victoria herself. Needless to say, Snow did not need to devote his time to understanding cholera, but his passion for scientific advancement pushed him to investigate theories for the diseases transmission while simultaneously operating a full time medical practice. Snow’s drive could be attributed to his humble upbringing. Like many men, he moved from a rural home to the city with ambitions of creating a life. Unlike most of those men, Snow was successful and quickly went through the normally long process to become a doctor of medicine. During the early phases of his medical career, Snow was exposed to a cholera outbreak in a mine. While looking at the case, he noticed that the miners literally worked and ate in their own excrement. Taking note of the conditions along with cholera’s unique symptom, rice-water stools, Snow began to form a hypothesis that cholera thrived in the intestine and was transmitted through human waste. London would become the location of Snow’s next experience with cholera. This experience starts in 1849 with the formation of a theory stating that cholera is caused by direct ingestion of human excrement or by the drinking of water contaminated by sewage.
To prove his hypothesis, Snow analyzed an outbreak between two housing developments in Horsleydown. The first development, the Surrey building, consisted of interconnected homes that shared a single well. During storms, sewage drains would flood and contaminate this well. Twelve people died during a single outbreak. During this time, in Tuscott’s Court, there was only one death. The areas were virtually identical other than Tuscott’s Court had multiple sources for providing water to residents. Snow would use the Horsleydown case...