The Ghost Map





The Ghost Map

Steven Johnson’s book, ‘The Ghost Map’ is a story about the city of London during the mid-nineteenth century. The population of London grew quite rapidly during that time. Many people lived in an urban setting when compared to the rest of the world where most lived in rural areas. The rapidly increasing population posed a significant challenge to the city’s leadership that did not have a comprehensive plan to accommodate the numbers. Many problems mostly challenge with waste disposal, and unclean water ravaged the city, leading to epidemics and many deaths among the people. ‘The Ghost Map’ tells the story of how the medical community and leadership of the city went about seeking the source and subsequent solution to the epidemics in the city.

In a location with many people, the first challenge that arises is waste. Many poor people made a living scouring through the trash and made a killing from it. They would collect the human excrement, god excrement, carcasses, and other refuse and dumped it on the edge of the city, mostly in the River Thames. The garbage collectors were recycling most of the waste they had collected, a practice that had been in practice since ancient times and used in farming.

Charles Dickens, a famous philosopher, lived in London at the time. The state of affairs at the time inspired him to come up with the thought that for civilization to progress, there had to be a level of misery and filth surrounding it. Karl Marx’s theory of Communism also came to life during this time when London began to grow exponentially.

The epidemic of 1854 began with a soiled diaper thrown into a cesspool. The baby’s mother, Sarah Lewis, probably had no idea what she had set off by throwing the sick child’s diaper into a source of water that many of the city’s people used. Cholera spread within days with many people falling seriously ill in a short period. They had come into contact with water from the cesspool. Cholera spread very fast due to the dense population in London at the time. The challenge of a lack of access to clean water further accelerated the spread of cholera across the city.

There lived a well-known priest in London at the time of the epidemic known as Henry Whitefield. He went around the city offering comfort to the victims of the cholera epidemic. John Snow was a member of the medical profession, an anesthesiologist. He, however, deviated from his field of training when the epidemic started and developed an interest in the way in which the outbreak spread. Many believed that dead bodies caused the spread of diseases.

Two dominant theories came up to explain the spread of cholera, the first being the contagion theory. This theory proposed that there was a kind of agent that passed between infected people and extended the disease. The second theory, miasma theory, suggested terrible odors to be the leading cause of the spread of cholera. John Snow believed in the first theory and went about collecting evidence to support the argument. Despite this, many members of the medical community preferred the miasma theory over the more logical contagion theory.

Edward Chadwick headed the General Board of Health at the time. He too supported the miasma theory although there was no evidence to support it. Snow had the difficult task of trying to convince Chadwick and the board of the feasibility of the contagion theory. One of the reasons as to why Chadwick and many of London’s wealthy citizens eagerly accepted the miasma theory was a bias against the poor people. According to them, poor people in some way deserved to be sick due to the many bad smells that pervaded the atmospheres in which they lived. They remained stubborn and unyielding in their beliefs.

Such beliefs led Chadwick to suggest the unclogging of the sewerage system of the city. The sewer system had become clogged as a result of so many people using it yet its design supported a much smaller number. Rapid population growth of London could not be matched by the social amenities provided. Many epidemics happened in the 1850s, most triggered by the dumping of human waste into the River Thames at Chadwick’s instigation.

Snow remained undeterred and together with the priest, Henry Whitehead, they visited many households in the Soho region of London to find out more about the Cholera epidemic. Their visits unearthed the truth that the Broad Street water pump was to blame for the plague. Their findings concurred with research carried out by William Farr, a demographer. They could discredit the miasma theory by questioning why some buildings had been spared by the epidemic. Snow explained his findings during a meeting of the Board of Governors (195) and urged them to remove the Broad Street pump, which they did. Henry Whitehead’s investigation of the cause of the epidemic unearthed Sarah Lewis’ act of dumping the soiled diaper into the cesspool as the root (200).

In writing the book, the author is quite informative and provides useful insight into several subjects, one of these subjects being microbiology. Some of the terms used are however too complicated for a layperson to understand. An example of this is, “Corals live in a symbiotic alliance with tiny algae called zooxanthellae” (pg 6). Such a statement might potentially put off a reader who may be tempted to believe that it is full of technical jargon. The author also employs a vivid description to capture the imagination of the reader in the first pages of the book. An example of this is “….strolling along the Thames would see the toshers wading through the muck of low tide, dressed almost comically in flowing velveteen coats, their oversized pockets filled with stray bits of copper recovered from the water’s edge.” (pg 1)

On the first page of the book, there is a picture of a dilapidated building and seemingly filthy surroundings around it. There appear to be piles of rubbish and people are bent over it. The picture is meant to give a reader a mental image of what the city might have looked like at the time. Similarly, at the start of every chapter, there is a picture that gives an inkling of what the chapter is about, thus engaging the reader more.

From the book, Johnson can be said to be a trustworthy author. The information that is presented in the book is likely to be accurate especially in explaining the epidemics in London in the 1850s as well as the solutions that were proposed. London at the time grew into a big city, but many challenges accompanied this growth that led to the loss of life. Several characters in the book such as John Snow and Henry Whitefield are introduced to develop the plot of the story. The author appears to have an intimate knowledge of the subject as he can use biological explanations to expound on how Cholera spread through London. He is also acquainted with the events that led to the epidemic and how it was eventually solved.

The subject matter of the book is quite impressive. While reading the book, the reader is intrigued by the introduction of the well-developed characters who contribute to the events of the time. It sheds light on what it took for London to grow into the bustling metropolis that it is today and that the journey was not without incident. It is relevant to personal interest since it gives a history of one of the greatest cities in the world today, in a completely different era. It is hard to imagine what the city looked like at the time in comparison to what it has grown to today.

The book is relevant to many people. One of the groups to which the book is relevant to be planners of cities and towns. It sheds light on what kind of planning should be put in place in terms of supply of housing and sanitation facilities. It is also helpful to show that there should be flexibility in thinking and accepting other people’s opinions. Chadwick was bent on the miasma theory and wouldn’t take notice of the contagion theory which eventually proved to be right. The story also goes to show that we can learn from our mistakes to prosper in the future. Those interested in history will benefit from this book which traces the history of the city of London in the Victorian era.

‘The Ghost Map’ is a captivating book that absorbs the reader into the happenings of the nineteenth century London. Without a doubt, London has come a long way from the filthy settlement that is described to be at the time. Steven Johnson did an excellent job presenting the story of London from its humble beginnings and the challenges it overcame.