- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006



By Steven Johnson

Riverhead, $26.95, 301 pages

Steven Johnson has earned a well-deserved reputation as a bold and ambitious thinker. In 2005 he generated an abundance of controversy with his book “Everything Bad is Good for You,” in which he argued that popular culture is not producing a generation of brain-dead zombies. Rather, the complicated plots and story lines of today’s movies and video games, Mr. Johnson contended, hone problem-solving skills and boost brainpower. (Fans of reality TV, rejoice: While savoring the backstabbing and infighting of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” you’re actually improving your emotional intelligence.)

Mr. Johnson is no less ambitious in “Ghost Map,” as the book’s weighty subtitle reveals: “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” Indeed, “Ghost Map” is more than just an account of the cholera epidemic that ravaged London in 1854, or of the two men who solved the mystery of how the disease spread. Mr. Johnson also waxes philosophical about the nature of scientific discovery and explains how cholera’s demise gave rise to the modern metropolis.

He captures the smallest details — such as how the bacterium that causes cholera replicates — but also assumes a lofty perch from which he opines about subjects as expansive as the future of the modern city. He is a multi-disciplinary maestro who has written about neuroscience, media studies and computer technology, and is the author of four previous books, including his polemic about popular culture.

In “Ghost Map,” Mr. Johnson explains that London in 1854 was nearly drowning in waste. It did not have an effective sewer system, a problem exacerbated by exponential population growth. The city had about a million inhabitants at the start of the 19th century, but 50 years later that number had grown to 2.4 million. “Victorian London had its postcard wonders, to be sure — the Crystal Palace, Trafalgar Square, the new additions to Westminster Palace,” writes Mr. Johnson. “But it also had wonders of a different order, no less remarkable: artificial ponds of sewage, dung heaps the size of houses.”

London first learned about cholera in 1781, when 500 British soldiers fell ill during an outbreak in India. The disease spread though Asia, Russia and the United States, exacting a unique set of horrors. The cholera bacterium replicates in the small intestine and disrupts the mechanism that regulates the body’s water balance, causing a victim to expel water at prodigious rates. In extreme cases, victims lose up to 30 percent of their body weight in a few hours. The body’s major systems shut down, and death soon follows.

Though physicians in the early 19th century were familiar with cholera, they had not yet developed effective treatments. In fact, many of their homespun remedies actually made patients worse. They used leeches, prescribed laxatives, recommended brandy — all of which caused their already dehydrated patients to lose even more water.

Nor, for that matter, were scientists close to discovering how cholera spread. The prevailing theory at the time was miasma: that cholera lingered among unsanitary spaces and foul odors and was inhaled by its victims. In short, that the smell itself was the disease. “The idea of microscopic germs spreading disease would have been about as plausible as the existence of fairies to most practicing doctors of the day,” writes Mr. Johnson. “The Victorian medical refrain was, essentially: Take a few hits of opium and call me in the morning.”

Enter Henry Whitehead and John Snow. Whitehead was a clergyman and an Oxford graduate. Snow was a physician known for his study of anesthesia, then a fledgling practice. Both men lived near Golden Square in Soho, where the cholera epidemic in 1854 killed nearly 700 in less than two weeks. Both challenged the conventional wisdom about how the disease spread.

Mr. Johnson unfolds a gripping narrative that illuminates how Whitehead and Snow built a case that cholera was a waterborne disease ingested by its victims. The author also includes touching anecdotes about the lives of the ordinary men, women and children who succumbed to the illness.

In the end, the smoking gun was a map (the “Ghost Map” of the title) drawn by Snow that established the source of the outbreak: the Broad Street water pump. Even after the map was published the miasma theory continued to endure, at least for a few years. Why, exactly, did it take so long for Londoners to see the light?

“The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps,” writes Mr. Johnson. “But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well. How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline — the sociology of error.”

Mr. Johnson argues that a few factors created a “perfect storm of error.” Among them was a deep-seated prejudice about how disease of all kinds singled out the destitute and spiritually bankrupt and left the upper crust unscathed.

When Londoners finally did accept the waterborne theory of cholera, they constructed a sewer system to ensure the cleanliness of the city’s water — a task “every bit as epic and enduring as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge or the Eiffel Tower.” The system served as a model for cities such as Hamburg and Chicago, and enabled urban areas to support an ever-increasing number of inhabitants. And so the modern metropolis was born.

“The history books tend to orient themselves around nationalist story lines: overthrowing the king, electing the presidents, fighting the battles,” writes Mr. Johnson. “But the history book of recent Homo sapiens as a species should begin and end with one narrative: We became city dwellers.”

Mr. Johnson leaves no threat to the modern city unexplored in his concluding pages: terrorism and biological weapons, avian flu and the risk of a global pandemic, the proliferation of squatters with no sanitation in cities such as Sao Paulo.

Most interesting is the idea that the Internet, which gave rise to telecommuting and once seemed destined to check cities’ growth, actually stands to make urban areas more attractive. The reason: It gives individuals a chance to share information that makes pursuing one’s interests easier. As Jane Jacobs observed more than 40 years ago in “Death and Life of the Great American City,” the size of cities makes them natural havens for niche interests and idiosyncratic tastes.

Mr. Johnson himself helped found a Web site, outside.in, that gathers in one place all of the gossip from a neighborhood — the new hip bar, the park where crime is rising, the school with problematic administrators. Instead of searching the Internet for various scraps, users can pull up a map of their block to get the latest word on the street.

Occasionally, some of Mr. Johnson’s ruminations in the book do seem half-baked and tangential. But that is a small quibble. “Ghost Map” is an erudite work that not only establishes the significance of London’s cholera epidemic in 1854 but inspires us to think about our modern existence. It is no small achievement.

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