|The Ghost Map|
Filippo Pacini was the first person to see the Vibrio cholerae bacillus in 1854. That same year, an epidemic broke out in London that claimed more than 600 hundred lives. Some Soho streets lost up to 12% of their population that fall. At the time, the predominant theory about how cholera and number of other diseases and ailments were spread was the miasmatic theory. "Bad air" would settle in a location and poison the people there. Dr. John Snow, a physician who pioneered the use of ether and chloroform, had another theory. He believed that the only explanation for the spread of cholera was contaminated water.
The Ghost Map tells the story of Snow's attempts to trace the path of cholera during the 1854 Broad Street outbreak and change the minds of the entire British medical field. Johnson discusses Snow's various strategies: interviews with survivors, reviewing mortality reports, and mapping sewer and water pipes. Snow's case is overwhelmingly convincing to the modern reader. It's stunning how his fellow physicians fought to vigorously to uphold the theory of miasmas in the face of so much patiently collected evidence.
Snow is not the only one pursuing the truth of cholera's transmission. A curate who lived near Broad Street (the point of origin of the epidemic) named Henry Whitehead provided some crucial evidence by finding the "index case"—the first person known to have the disease at the start of an epidemic.
|A memorial to John Snow a few blocks from|
the site of the original Broad Street pump,
the point of origin for the 1854 outbreak.
The Ghost Map absolutely captures the mood of the time. Before the disease was understood, cholera (and a number of other afflictions) seemed to come out of nowhere—or possibly from the next ominous looking cloud, depending on who one believed. Vibrio cholerae is a violent illness, capable of killing its victims within hours in a particularly gruesome manner. Shortly after I started listening to the book, as I heard Johnson describe how the disease kills people, I started to feel very, very thirsty. At the same time, I didn't want to go get a drink of water because that's where the cholera comes from. (Funny enough, as I sit here writing this post, I'm drinking a big glass of tap water. Filtered, of course.)
A note about the narration: Alan Sklar narrated the audiobook version of The Ghost Map I got from Audible.com. Sklar has a pleasingly deep voice and a good rhythm. Unfortunately, he's also a very breathy reader. In the Audible edition, he can be heard sucking in breath before resuming his narration. He also mispronounces a few British place names, which I found jarring.
* If you'd like to learn more about the history of medicial, with special emphasis on the bizarre and misguided, I cannot recommend Sawbones highly enough. It is brilliant.