Hard to believe, but there was a time in civilization when it was commonplace to walk streets filled with mountains of excrement and drink water from public pumps nearby. Today, we know that’s a potentially fatal combo that screams no-no, but the town of London had to learn that lesson the hard way.
In “The Ghost Map,” Steven Johnson documents a chaotic week during the summer of 1854, when an alarmingly number of residents suddenly caught cholera and rapidly died. It all started with a woman washing soiled baby diapers in a bucket of water, but only apothecary and surgeon John Snow had the foresight to investigate when he noticed the disease seemed to skip blocks, so to speak.
Snow conducted a one-man, proto-“CSI” peek, and created a map of the outbreak clusters to prove his thesis correct, with ominous black bars representing the dead. And thus was born epidemiology.
Part history lesson and part detective story, “The Ghost Map” gets the reader hooked into a real-life mystery “ even if he or she knows the outcome “ as Snow takes it upon himself to play sleuth. Johnson renders enough details “ some entirely grotesque “ that the book reads like fiction, and therefore, is quite riveting, even for those predisposed to disliking accounts of historical events.
The only sour note “The Ghost Map” hits is in Johnson’s wrap-up, when he unconvincingly attempts to tie in the cholera outbreak to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and doomsday scenarios involving nuclear weapons. Such commentary is out of place in an otherwise finely focused work.