Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map is a detailed description of the cholera epidemic in 1864, but the more interesting part of the book is how Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead’s different ideas merge to solve the mystery of the source of the illness. Although as Johnson makes clear in the early pages of his novel, it is not really a mystery when you consider the sanitation issues they were facing in mid-nineteenth century London. Johnson describes how two men from different fields with different ideas came together to map out the cholera crisis.
In The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson uses two men’s maps to show the connection of rban society, the genesis of an epidemic, and the events leading up to the discovery of the source of cholera . In this novel, Johnson shows how there was not a single hero in the story of the cholera crisis. The effort to solve the cholera crisis and create better living conditions was truly a communal effort. He shows that urban life which seemed incredibly chaotic and random was connected in the effort to save its people from the epidemic.
Johnson talks about how the entrepreneurs and public figures came together to create a safer, cleaner environment. Undoubtedly, the cholera epidemic was the product of the errible hygiene in nineteenth century England. From the very beginning, Johnson describes the awful stench of waste that filled the streets. This novel takes readers back to times when there was no waste management. Backyards, basements, and even the streets were used as dumping ground for human waste. Then with the popularity of the water closet, hygiene only became worse.
Waste was being flushed into the Thames River, and people were then getting their drinking water from the same source. Johnson describes this in the early pages of The Ghost Map in nauseatingly vivid detail. Johnson describes how during that time, the middle class eople-artists, musicians, and poets– were moving into a neighborhood called Soho that most of the upper class had begun to abandon. Thomas and Sarah Lewis were two of the residents of the Golden Square which was the part of Soho the middle and upper class both still inhabited.
Johnson states in his novel, “Despite-or perhaps because of- the increasingly crowded and unsanitary conditions, it was a hotbed of creativity. ” Unfortunately, the crowded, unsanitary conditions made it the perfect breeding ground for more than just creativity. The Lewis’s daughter who was only five months old suddenly ecame ill in August 1854, though the source of her illness remained unknown. Her diaper required constant changing, so her soiled cloth diapers were soaked in water and then washed. All of the water used to wash her soiled diapers was then dumped in a local cesspool as waste usually was.
That local cesspool fed into the Broad Street pump. The Broad Street pump was the source of water that several people in Soho relied on for clean water. Her waste began to accumulate in the cesspool. It then bred the cholera bacteria which led to the cholera outbreak of 1854. The outbreak killed seventy people in the Soho area after just one day. There were several different theories as to the origin of cholera, but there were two main theories. Some believed that cholera was a contagion, meaning it spread form person to person like influenza.
Meanwhile, many scientists and doctors of that day believed that the source of the disease was the toxic fumes caused by the poor disposal of waste. One of the supporters of the contagion theory was a man named John Snow. He was the son of a farmer who became a practicing physician and scientific researcher. After careful research, Snow discovered the Broad Street pump in Soho to be the source of the disease. Snow had help tracking the disease from a man named Henry Whitehead. Whitehead was a religious minister. Johnson talks about how Whitehead originally believed that cholera was spread by toxic fumes but later changed his opinion.
Johnson says, “His religious values had brought him into close contact with the poor, but they had not blinded him to the enlightenments of science. ” Johnson drew attention to how Whitehead did not allow his religious background to blind him to modern science like other ministers of that day did. Because Whitehead was a minister, he had more access to the neighborhood than a scientist would. He was able to gather information about the habits of the residents of Soho while meeting with them for religious reasons. Snow used Whitehead’s findings to create a map.
Johnson titled his novel The Ghost Map because the map they created showed the relation of the life patterns and living situations of people who became ill and died. After plotting the data that they had collected, Snow and Whitehead discovered that the cholera deaths were concentrated in an area close to the same water source, the Broad Street pump. Though their map was not necessarily the cure of cholera, Snow and Whitehead made a huge breakthrough for science.
They showed that research and their combined efforts made it possible to locate the source of cholera. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab.. “-Johnson believed that the best discoveries came through combined intuitive power and heavy research outside of a lab. Now, most would assume that Steven Johnson’s novel would end with the isolation and removal of the polluted water source, but that is not the case. The beginning of this novel creates suspense, mystery, and a sense of urgency because of the sudden cholera outbreak. Though the end is fairly anticlimactic, t really is satisfying. London was able to build a sewage system in the years following the cholera outbreak.
The progressive building of the new sewage system was, in some ways, a reflection of Snow and Whitehead’s research of the outbreak. Snow and Whitehead had their own theories as to the cause of the outbreak, but they did not hurry to any conclusions. They researched carefully and cautiously but still were able to work at a fast pace. In the same way, the builders of London’s sewage system worked together to carefully create a system that would help promote good hygiene. Incredibly, they had the system orking by 1865 which was impressive and fast given the technology they had in that day.
Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map is an interesting documentation of how John Snow and Henry Whitehead’s maps showed the connection of urban society, the sudden beginning of an epidemic, and the discovery of the source. Though this true story has an anticlimactic ending, Johnson’s writing makes it a very fulfilling ending. The way he begins the novel by describing vividly the terrible hygiene and living conditions of that day makes the ending appropriate. Though it may seem as though he is building to the cure of cholera, he is actually uilding to the cure of an even bigger problem.
The urgency of the cholera outbreak is almost a distraction to the bigger meaning of this novel. Snow and Whitehead may not have realized at the time what their map was helping London accomplish. Johnson points out in this novel that Snow and Whitehead’s research was actually part of a bigger plan. Their research sparked a movement to change the hygiene in London. Without this spark, London most likely would have experienced hundreds of other outbreaks. Johnson showed in this novel that through combined brain power and hard work, man can discover incredible solutions to the problems he faces.