614: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

by Gerard

614.514: Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead, 2006. 256 pp. ISBN 978-1-59448-269-4.

Dewey Construction:

  • 600: Technology
  • 610: Medicine
  • 614: Forensic medicine
  • 614.5: Incidents of and public measures to prevent specific diseases
  • 614.514: Cholera

On August 28, 1854, a young girl in the Lewis family on Broad Street fell ill. Her small body quickly deteriorated from the loss of liquids and soon thereafter, she died. Her family tossed her waste and cleaned her diapers in a nearby water pump. Over the next days, weeks, and months, trillions of cholera bacteria multiplied, infected the water, and from there, calamity erupted. It took a doctor from York and a Soho curate to solve the case. But not before 600 people died of a ghastly disease.

Cholera is horrible. That’s all there is. The cholera bacterium (Vibrio cholerae) makes its way into a human host through the deliberate or accidental ingestion of waste products (which contain tons of replicated offspring). The host’s intestines become a breeding ground and they soon succumb to vomiting and diarrhea (in order to infect more hosts) to the point of extreme dehydration. This condition continues until there is no water to help the body’s systems do their jobs. Then organs shut down and eventually the patient dies.

At the time of the 1854 cholera outbreak, there had already been a few previous cholera cases in London, so the first few weren’t completely out of the ordinary. But when dozens of people started dying around the Broad Street pump, something was definitely amiss. Dr. John Snow, inventor of an ingenious anesthetic gas delivery system mapped out occurrences and, together with Reverend Henry Whitehead, found its source.

Their work helped scientists and doctors understand the disease a little bit better. It helped to counter the “miasma theory of disease” (where people thought bad smells caused medical issues). Civil engineers learned that sewers and water sources had to be separated more and the medical establishment gained a new tool in the prevention of outbreaks.

The Ghost Map is a very good history of this outbreak. Johnson’s writing helps to make science and medicine much more interesting. His sources and research incorporate not only technical material, but also literary passages from Charles Dickens that help to capture the quintessence of the age. All in all, an illuminating history.