The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Ghost Map:

If you thought doctors were clueless now….

Quick synopsis:

The story of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in England and how two men figured out why it was happening.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The cholera outbreak chronicled here killed 616 people. It all came from one water pump.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

This wouldn’t be known back when this happened but one of the best treatments for cholera is somewhat ironic. Cholera causes you to go to the bathroom an excessive amount of times. If only people knew the best solution was to keep eating and drinking excessively. Eventually, the cholera would run its course and the infected person would not succumb to malnutrition of other effects.

My Take on The Ghost Map:

This story is really straight forward but takes into account a lot of the confusion when trying to treat diseases before the idea of a germ was totally understood.

In 1854, a major outbreak of cholera occurred in London. Why? Basically, because no one understood sanitation, people’s waste was going into the Thames. Since no one knew about germs or how cholera infected people, it meant that many water pumps were contaminated. The one on Broad Street was particularly bad and would take over 600 lives.

It would have been worse if not for Dr. John Snow (no, not the Game of Thrones guy) and the Reverend Henry Whitehead. Yes, it sounds like the perfect set up for a buddy comedy, but this actually happened. Between Snow understanding how infection works and Whitehead knowing the neighborhood, they were able to pinpoint the Broad Street pump as the source of the infection and save lives.

Johnson tells this part of the story well but then tries to extrapolate a bit too much. The story itself is interesting enough and explains how the competing theories of a disease made this particularly difficult for Snow and Whitehead.


A good book that falls apart a bit when the actual historical event ends. Still worth a read. Buy it here!

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2 responses to “The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson”

  1. Disappointed map guy Avatar
    Disappointed map guy

    Spot on review.

    I also found the author assumes a knowledge of London that I lacked. Also there is a lack of time spent on a map until the end (I get it’s the big reveal / finale). An early street map would have given a lot more relevance to the amount of street descriptions.

    1. Brendan Dowd Avatar
      Brendan Dowd

      As a fellow map nerd, yes, you are 100% correct. I feel like this is one of those books that with a better editor could have been very good as opposed to just good. And more maps are never a bad thing.

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