“Reports had surfaced of some customers discovering live eels in their drinking water, which suggested that the filters were not perhaps working optimally.”
CSI: 1850. A deadly epidemic of cholera sweeps through a London neighborhood, claiming its victims in a pattern with a deadly epicenter: the Broad Street water pump. OK, it’s tough writing a medical thriller in which the plumbing did it. But that’s what Steven Johnson has done in this engaging account of Dr. John Snow and the medical detective work that kept London’s plumbing from killing again.
Johnson paints a lively, frightful picture of the Victorian city, its sounds, smells, quack medicine, and state-of-the-medieval-art sewer system. No one knew yet how cholera was spread. “Miasmatists” thought the cause was bad air, and so the primary goal of public health officials was to get rid of things that stank. Unfortunately, their remedy was to shovel all of the, um, “cess” from London’s backyard cesspools into the river that supplied their drinking water. Victorian logic: if, by shoveling manure onto our fields, we get larger plants, then surely by emptying excrement into the Thames, we will get… bigger fish?
Enter John Snow, our workaholic hero. Already an innovator in the new science of surgical anesthesia, he also has a theory about the waterborne transmission of cholera, and the latest outbreak is his chance to test it. Knocking on every door in Soho, he constructs a map and a timeline of deaths per household, painstakingly assembling the evidence that will prevent a terrible outbreak from becoming even worse.
As in most microhistories, Johnson starts with a single event and follows its details into unexpected places, writing about microbes and then about coral reefs and then about the need to get rid of nuclear stockpiles… ok, the big picture got a little confusing by the end. It’s the little things, like the bacteria (and the eels), that I enjoyed reading about, and on that scale The Ghost Map entertains.
Check the WRL catalog for The Ghost Map