Johnson’s “Ghost Map” delights, disgusts with historical detail


I have read Steven Johnson’s “The Ghost Map” twice: once for an independent research project during my senior year of high school, and then again after the K-State Book Network announced it as its common read selection.

Though the book is particularly aimed at epidemiological enthusiasts, Johnson tells a fantastic story: one that paramount events in modern epidemiological science turned mystery narrative.

The story centers—quite literally—around the Broad Street pump in Golden Square, which was one the poorest, filthiest, most overcrowded places in England in the mid 19th century. The tale of the Broad Street pump cautions that rapid expansion comes at a price. At the end of August 1854, a Cholera epidemic tore through Golden Square and the history books. Within the first 24 hours, over seventy residents were dead, and the disease spread rapidly through the rest of the neighborhood.

What makes the story a compelling mystery is not the appearance of the outbreak itself (which is given away if not in the title itself, then within the first chapter), but how John Snow, a local physician also famous for the invention of an inhaler to dispense regulated doses of chloroform, eventually convinced local public health officials that the Broad Street public water pump was responsible for the infection.

Some readers might recoil at the sheer mention of mathematics, but its inclusion plays a crucial role, as Snow could not have identified the epicenter of the outbreak without use of the mathematical formulas Johnson details in the text. Johnson does not go into the gritty details of exactly how Snow used math in his epidemiological pursuits, but provides enough information that readers can pursue additional information about Snow’s formulas if they desire.

One of the most impressive facets of the book is how well Johnson integrates scientific fact with historical narrative, often going above and beyond the time-sensitive facts based around the 1854 outbreak to explain other pertinent details such as the history of the London sewer system, the installation and upgrade of modern toilets, and the trials and tribulations associated with unchecked urban expansion and a sore lack of central planning.

Though I frequently found myself skimming over the historical details because I was so eager to find out what would happen next with Snow or any of his various ailing neighbors, I was glad for their inclusion: not only did they provide helpful contextual information about the mystery of the outbreak, but I found myself learning things I didn’t expect to from a book about a disease epidemic (for example, I now know about five different 19th-century slang words for various kinds of poop).

While we’re at it, a particularly noteworthy characteristic of this book is that parts of it are downright revolting. The entirety of the first chapter is dedicated to a detailed depiction of London’s sewer and waste-removal systems, which is equal parts fascinating and stomach-turning. However, if you can get past the revolting details of the early chapters (Johnson spares us no details in describing the early stages of a Cholera infection, either), then you will be treated to a diamond in the rough: a fascinating historical mystery wrapped in scientific non-fiction wrapped in a whole lot of synonyms for the word “poop.”

Even if medically-accurate depictions of nasty illnesses aren’t really your thing, you might want to think about sucking it up and giving this book a try over the summer anyway: As the KSBN selection for next year, some instructors may make it required reading. It is best to have it read before your big summer trip to Cabo, though—this isn’t one I’d want to be reading by the poolside with a fruity umbrella drink…especially if any of its ingredients came from a public faucet.