Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2007 | Reviews

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

By Ed Holtum

Ed Holtum, curator of the John Martin Rare Book Room in the UI's Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, is currently engrossed in a real-life medical mystery, The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (Riverhead Books, New York, 2006).

Why did you choose it?

I've always been fascinated with the story of physician John Snow, the book's protagonist. Also, I was attracted because the book offers a detailed look at an important moment in medical history and the people and conditions that surrounded it.

What's it about?

Ghost Map is an account of the discovery of the cause of the appalling cholera epidemic that ravaged a large portion of London's working class in 1854. In suggesting that the disease was waterborne, Snow was swimming against the tide of the medical establishment, which alleged that the disease was spread through the poisoned air or "miasma" resulting from the ever-present stench of human waste, offal, and decay that enveloped the city.

Snow was already a noted authority on the use of chloroform when he became interested in disease transmission, and in particular, the earlier cholera epidemic of 1849. His short book on the subject suggested that cholera was spread through contaminated wells rather than through the air. Snow's idea received little support at the time but took on new importance during the 1854 epidemic. By personally canvassing the affected neighborhoods and creating and analyzing maps that pinpointed the individual cases, Snow traced the contaminant to the communal Broad Street Pump and hastily ordered its handle removed. His action not only helped bring an end to the epidemic, but became a symbol for the triumph of logic over popular opinion.

Why are you enjoying it?

Johnson is a master "scene-setter" and immerses the reader in the social and physical environment of London through his own vivid descriptions and through the use of quotations from Dickens and other writers of the time. The book is in many ways a huge detective story with all the suspense of a mystery. Then, there is John Snow himself, a thoroughly admirable figure who at the expense of his own health and reputation found the source of an epidemic and saved countless lives in the process.

What would you say to recommend it to others?

It's a page turner, not only because of the unfolding narrative, but because of what it reveals of another time and place. Despite the tragic nature of the subject matter, the story is ultimately a victorious one that celebrates moral and intellectual courage.