The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map has been sitting on my shelf for a couple years and I finally picked it up a few weeks ago. I don’t know why I waited so long: I love medical mysteries, not in my own body, but in shows like House and Discover magazine’s Vital Signs column, for instance. I am also currently reading a book about parasites (Parasite Rex – soon to be reviewed!). I was excited to read The Ghost Map not only because it has received some very good reviews but also because Victorian England is a pretty fascinating time. It is hard to imagine cities like London absolutely teeming with human waste – what that must have smelled like! This revolting image juxtaposed with the prim and proper nature of the people at that time, dressed in very fine clothes, is hard to reconcile. The Ghost Map actually does a pretty good job of describing the cesspools, the rank smells, and what the Thames River looked like back then. The author, Stephen Johnson, also takes us through a day in the life of a cholera victim: needless to say, not a pleasant experience, but I am fascinated by all this. The book revolves around Dr. John Snow, who through painstaking research walking the streets of his neighbourhood during one of London’s worst cholera outbreaks. He manages to discern that cholera is not spread through smell (as many scientists believed at the time) but rather through water. Of course at this stage no one had ever seen a bacterium, so how the water was transmitting disease was a huge mystery. While this all sounds really interesting, unfortunately The Ghost Map was ultimately a disappointing read. Overall I found the language too flowery and this started to grate on me. Johnson makes a lot of presumptions about what Dr. Snow must have been thinking or what he must have done, and this too gets a bit tiresome. But the biggest reason for my disappointment I think is the fact that the so-called ‘ghost map’ is not even mentioned until the last chapter in the book and when it is mentioned, there is no map printed in the book! You are left to imagine what it must have looked like – where the water pumps were; how the neighbourhood deaths were depicted on the map. Frankly I think this is rather ridiculous for a book with ‘map’ right in the title! Maybe there were copyright issues?  The final criticism I have for this book is that the conclusion chapter is long and rambly, discussing everything from nuclear war in modern cities to food shortages. It’s a long tangent from the medical mystery theme and a disappointing and honestly boring one at that. If you are fascinated by cholera then this book is worth a read, but don’t bother with the final chapter.

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