Review of The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson fell into my lap unexpectedly. While reviewing the syllabus for the 9th grade East-West History class I was contracted to teach I saw the book listed as a required on the syllabus for the prior year and so purchased it. I later found out that it was a optional reading item for extra credit, but I’m so glad that I read it and have since used it as a component of the class dealing with the International Baccalaureate’s emphasis towards understanding the manner in which technology effects human society.

Ghost Map is one of the best works of popular history that I have ever read. I loved it without qualifications and have already recommended it to several people. The style, the pacing, the everything is a homerun and my students that have read it have all found it enjoyable if at times a little difficult.

As the book states in the opening, it is largely the tale of four protagonists: John Snow – a pioneering surgeon and medical researcher; Henry Whitehead – a priest; the city of London itself and the cholera bacterium. Spoiler alert: the story is easily summed up in a few sentences. A cholera outbreak occurs in London at a time when people believe that such illnesses are passed around by bad smells and there is no real infrastructure to removed human and animal waste products from cities. A talented and ambitious but humble medical researcher named John Snow starts to investigate and with the help of a local priest familiar with those affected and armed with information garnished from new practices of governmental record keeping is able to determine from when the cholera outbreak came and to provide a thorough but at the time unrecognized refutation of the miasma theory of cholera dissemination. It’s the attention to detail that he gives these characters, the depth he goes to explain the rationale for functioning of practices and creatures that doesn’t seem overwhelm the reader, the contextualization of the various obstacles faced and the underlying exegesis of some of the concepts of historical materialism that made it such an engaging read. I knew that this would be somewhat the case as the book opens with a quote by Walter Benjamin from the Theses on the Philosophy of History regarding Klee’s Angelus Novus. However I was presently surprised by how much of this was described in relationship to these four protagonists.

Johnson carefully documents how the class system existent at the time and the low level of scientific knowledge played a huge role in the perpetuation of a false medical paradigms that contributed to both degrading attitudes and the delay of infrastructural development needed to address the preconditions for cholera and other diseases spread. There is an irony that hints at comedy in such disdain, for despite the bourgeoisie hatred for the “lower classes” whose labor created the capital that they enjoyed such feelings of superiority for some in the nicer communities are leveled when they too contract it. Related to this is the miasma theory of disease. Johnson cleverly shows all the holes in the theory and shows how this relates to the elite classes own prejudices much as scientific racism was an outgrowth of the conditions of American slavery.

The sections on cholera were insightful without getting too deep within scientific jargon while those on Dr. John Snow and Henry Whitehead were both compelling. In the YouTube videos that I perused for use in the classroom unrelated to the author the former is highlighted while the latter largely goes unreported. Even then Snow is depicted as an abstraction rather than a person whose motives and actions were far outside the norm of his epoch. John Snow’s devotion to finding this at no profit to him self and how in fact it causes him to face ridicule from a large number of medical professionals at his time, shows how heroic he was. Such circumstances make for good reflections on the nature of the modern hero.

Despite the book being so good, I found that some of my students whose first language isn’t English had major difficulties with the text. Understandable as while “big” concepts were well described in simple language, they had to spend a lot of time looking up words. I think it’s a good practice for students to keep a running list of the words that they use and think that this would be a great interdisciplinary text to use with science lessons.