The central theme of Steven Berlin Johnson’s The Ghost Map is illness—in particular, the Vibrio cholera bacterium, or cholera, which killed hundreds of thousands of Europeans throughout the 19th century. In Victorian London, where most of the book takes place, millions of people lived within a few miles of one another—a scenario that was as unusual at the time as it is ordinary in the 21st century. London, with its unprecedented population density, was a hotbed of art, culture, and finance, but also contagious disease— epidemics swept through the city, killing hundreds every day. Furthermore, at the time, almost nobody knew what caused these epidemics. (The foundational texts of cellular biology appeared in 1855, a year after the cholera epidemic described in The Ghost Map; Italian scientists had already isolated the Vibrio cholera bacterium, but it took three more decades before Robert Koch brought it to the international medical community’s attention.) In short, Victorian Londoners were surrounded by death, and lived in constant fear of the unknown.
The people of Victorian London reacted to the threat of illness in many different ways. Perhaps the most common response to the threat of cholera was also the simplest: sheer terror. However, some wealthy philanthropists treated the cholera epidemics as an opportunity to rebuild the city of London, founding the modern discipline of urban planning in the process. Scientists, such as John Snow, tried to understand the disease through research and experimentation, in the hopes that they would be able to predict and fight the disease’s effects on human beings. Religious figures, such as Henry Whitehead, believed that the epidemic represented God’s test of humanity’s faith. Finally, many Victorians responded with sheer bigotry, blaming the victims and suggesting that women, immigrants, or the poor were particularly susceptible to cholera. The various responses to the cholera epidemics suggest that it’s human nature to attempt to understand the unknown. In frightening times, people try to rationalize and even predict death—in a sense, “taming” it with knowledge. John Snow’s scientific approach to epidemiology (the study of diseases) was very different from the bigotry with which other Victorians faced the cholera epidemic. However, both responses represented attempts to understand, rationalize, and predict a frightening, mysterious phenomenon. In the last 150 years, thanks partly to John Snow and his fellow epidemiologists, people have generally become much better at understanding and predicting the unknown—relying on science instead of superstition and prejudice.
In the Epilogue to The Ghost Map, Johnson suggests that the future of civilization depends upon human beings’ ability to predict different kinds of death—a challenging and perhaps inherently doomed project. As Johnson sees it, people have become healthier and safer, but also more vulnerable to danger: in the 21st century, the threats of terrorist attacks and biological warfare hang over society, and, as Johnson argues, it’s only a matter of time before someone dangerous gets access to a nuclear warhead. Therefore, people need to use science and other intellectual disciplines to prepare for the unknown before it happens—in a sense, predicting every possible “disaster scenario” and then developing a solution for it. The problem, of course, is that it’s impossible to predict the unknown with 100% percent accuracy—some of the time, danger can only be understood with the benefit of hindsight. Johnson’s analysis of Victorian England, coupled with his observations in the Epilogue, adds up to a disturbing vision of society. As he sees it, human beings have devoted much of their intelligence to the problem of avoiding death, particularly from diseases such as cholera. But while humans have had some success in solving this problem, they’ll never succeed in vanquishing death altogether—indeed, the more ingenious their methods for doing so, the more dangerous the forms of death seem to become. No matter what people do, they’ll have to live in a state of uncertainty, mitigating their fear with knowledge but never quelling it altogether.
Illness, Death, and the Unknown ThemeTracker
Illness, Death, and the Unknown Quotes in The Ghost Map
This social topography would play a pivotal role in the events that unfolded in the late summer of 1854, when a terrible scourge struck Soho but left the surrounding neighborhoods utterly unharmed. That selective attack appeared to confirm every elitist cliché in the book: the plague attacking the debauched and the destitute, while passing over the better sort that lived only blocks away. Of course the plague had devastated the "meaner houses" and "bad streets"; anyone who had visited those squalid blocks would have seen it coming.
At the Lion Brewery on Broad Street, the seventy workers employed there went about their daily labor sipping on the malt liquor supplied as part of their wages.
For Londoners, the specific menace of cholera was a product of the Industrial Age and its global shipping networks: no known case of cholera on British soil exists before 1831.
One British doctor, Thomas Latta, hit upon this precise cure in 1832, months after the first outbreak, injecting salty water into the veins of the victims. Latta's approach differed from the modern treatment only in terms of quantity: liters of water are necessary to ensure a full recovery. Tragically, Latta's insight was lost in the swarming mass of cholera cures that emerged in the subsequent decades.
Snow also recognized the weakness of the contagionist argument. […] Clearly, the cholera was not communicated through sheer proximity. In fact, the most puzzling element of the disease was that it seemed capable of traveling across city blocks, skipping entire houses in the process.
Fear might not have been a contributing factor in the spread of disease, but it had long been a defining emotion of urban life. Cities often began as an attempt to ward off outside threats—fortified by walls, protected by guards—but as they grew in size, they developed their own, internal dangers: disease, crime, fire, along with the "soft" dangers of moral decline, as many believed. Death was omnipresent, particularly for the working class.
No doubt he had done more than anyone alive to focus attention on the shameful condition of the industrial poor, and to mobilize forces to correct those problems. But some of the most significant programs he put in place ended up having catastrophic effects.
Some of those forces were ideological in nature, matters of social prejudice and convention. Some revolved around conceptual limitations, failures of imagination and analysis. Some involve the basic wiring of the human brain itself. Each on its own might not have been strong enough to persuade an entire public-health system to empty raw sewage into the Thames. But together they created a kind of perfect storm of error.
Miasma became so powerful that it inspired a massive, state-sponsored intervention in the daily lives of millions of people, clearing the air by draining the cesspools. That intervention, miscalculated as it was, had the paradoxical effect of making the patterns of the epidemic more visible, at least to eyes that were capable of seeing them. And seeing the patterns more clearly means progress, in the long run at least.
In explaining Snow's battle against the miasma theory and the medical establishment, it's not sufficient to point to his brilliance or his tenacity alone, though no doubt those characteristics played a crucial role. If the dominance of the miasma model was itself shaped by multiple intersecting forces, so, too, was Snow’s ability to see it for the illusion that it was.
Whitehead thought the connection unlikely. He had personally seen so many residents recover from cholera after drinking Broad Street water. He himself had enjoyed a glass a few nights before, and had thus far resisted the plague. Perhaps Richardson had drunk too little.
Snow's argument was persuasive—and, besides, they had few other options. If Snow was wrong, the neighborhood might go thirsty for a few weeks. If he was right, who knew how many lives they might save? And so, after a quick internal consultation, the Board voted that the Broad Street well should be closed down.
Hall's list is a kind of straitjacket for an eventual document. You can tell from just scanning the instructions what kind of document they will ultimately produce: a rich and impossibly detailed inventory of the smells of Soho circa 1854.
Standing in front of his haggard parishioners in the half-empty church, he noted the disproportionate number of poor, elderly women in the pews. He congratulated them on their "remarkable immunity from the pestilence." But even as he spoke the words, he wondered: How can this be? What kind of pestilence spares the old and the destitute?
As for influence, it's pretty to think of John Snow unveiling the map before the Epidemiological Society to amazed and thunderous applause, and to glowing reviews in The Lancet the next week. But that's not how it happened. Its persuasiveness seems obvious to us now, living as we do outside the constraints of the miasma paradigm. But when it first began circulating in late 1854 and early 1855, its impact was far from dramatic. Snow himself seems to have thought that his South London Water Works study would ultimately be the centerpiece of his argument, the Broad Street map merely a piece of supporting evidence, a sideshow.
Perhaps urban nuclear explosions will turn out to be like hundred-year storms: a bomb goes off once a century, millions die, the planet shudders in horror, and slowly goes about its business.
The global challenges that we face are not necessarily an apocalyptic crisis of capitalism or mankind’s hubris finally clashing with the balanced spirit of Gaia. We have confronted equally appalling crises before. The only question is whether we can steer around these crises without killing ten million people, or more. So let’s get on with it.