“The Ghost Map” Is A Perfect Medical Mystery, With Lots Of Historical Punch


I generally do not read books about diseases or epidemics. That is due to the fact I generally start to feel symptoms of whatever malady is striking the victims in the book.  Other than And the Band Played On I have steered clear of these types of reads.

But there was something about the reviews several years ago that made me keep The Ghost Map on my pile of books to read.  The reviews were all filled with praise about the detail, and the many aspects to the story that Steven Johnson had so carefully put together.  I must say after having finished the book I am glad to have kept it around.

Seven hundred people die in a small section of London in about two weeks from cholera in 1854, and two men seek answers.  In time, as we know, science, medicine, and engineering will basically obliterate cholera from the world.  But before that took place, (in roughly 1930) there were questions, and theories that made for newspaper stories and advertisements as to the cause of the deaths.  As Johnson notes at length some of the oddities for cures that were promoted at the time are laughable.

One of the theories that Steven Johnson explains as to how many felt cholera to be spread (along with other diseases) was miasma.  How otherwise sensible and educated people of the time could be so led astray by thinking odors were the cause of a deadly outbreak  of cholera is written about with some sense of disbelief.

With a fine eye for detail Johnson takes readers on a journey that will not soon be forgotten.  With a curiosity about all sorts of factors and developments that range from the use of ether to water closets, along with the procedure of cleaning out a cesspool there is no lack of strange pieces of trivia that will cling to you after the book is finished.  The problem is that a sense of what London smelled like in 1854 will also linger after the story ends.

This is not a book for everyone, but if a good medical mystery threaded with lots of interesting history is your type of enjoyment than The Ghost Map is something to explore.

3 thoughts on ““The Ghost Map” Is A Perfect Medical Mystery, With Lots Of Historical Punch

  1. Gern Blanston, freelance malapropist

    Interesting, but perhaps too creepy for me to read as well? Not sure,
    My own grandmother had bought a strange medical cure-all device from a traveling salesman, probably in the 1930s. A rather ornate brass freestanding device, it was kept in a closet (unused for decades) until she died 10 years ago. It has been donated to a museum in one of the old Confederate states.The principles behind it give the miasma theory a run for its money. I can’t find any online images of the thing, but I did run into a really amazing amount of other really odd devices and inventions.
    In fairness though, a lot of strange ideas and even the conspiracy theories of today (in my opinion) make total sense on an emotional level. As people were just beginning to grasp the concept of airborne germs and disease transmission in a variety of ways, all the theoretical cards must have been on the table.
    Today it is quite common to see (educated, intelligent affluent) Japanese people wearing surgical masks every time they leave the home, as random protection from various “miasma”? With mutating diseases, genetic engineering, bioweapons etc doesn’t it make perfect sense for people to conceptualize clouds of Stinky-Nasty undulating just around the corner?
    It also seems to me that this wide-open craziness left people free to make some huge discoveries that a more cynical restrained attitude might have squelched, Tesla, Curie, Einstein, all those people had really open minds. As far as overall cultural advancement all that craziness and openness would have been good, even if a lot of the ideas people came up with back then did not withstand reality testing.
    If people were able to go all individual crazy with problem-solving and exploration and open discussion – how many of our modern crises might begin to reach solutions? Perhaps in many ways the “age of miasma” was more advanced that this current age is now.

    (lol, nice thought-provoking post.)

  2. Gern Blanston, freelance malapropist

    Having written all that I am reminded that I disagreed strongly with your views on “the Space Race”. I guess the answer is, so many discoveries come unexpectedly, so the best approach is to have wise leadership that balances high-cost speculative programs like NASA with the more mundane immediate needs of the people. (Not that I feel the invention of Tang was a huge step for mankind…)
    So in a real sense I am wrong to be resistant to renewed space funding but I guess on a gut level the timing seems very wrong to me.
    I’d FAR rather money go directly to atmospheric, geologic, climatological research than a trip to the moon at this point. (it’s 2:31 a.m “up North” in mid-March and my windows are open, my lilac is budding 2 months too soon, and I AM TOO HOT) WTH!!!!
    But it is really true that you can’t predict where the next big step forward will come from. So, maturity, selfless leadership and balance are the keys. (keys we have thrown away)

  3. Gern,

    Thanks for the comments.

    I agree that we never know where the next huge idea will come from. While I strongly want to venture into space and spend national resources on exploration I also want to invest money into brain science. Talk about untapped possibilities! There is so much to learn about in all directions, and we seem to waste so much on war.

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