Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Finished: Jan. 17
Rating: A-

I have to admit I sometimes enjoy a good epidemiological history. Johnson’s account of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Victorian London is engaging, but the focus isn’t so much cholera as the larger challenges of urban living. Within the vein of epidemiological history, I preferred Marilyn Chase’s The Barbary Plague in which she describes the development of the bubonic plague in Victorian San Francisco from 1900-1909. Of course she had a larger event to describe so the focus stayed solidly on the plague. Johnson’s account seems a bit more scattered, but it reads well. His descriptions of the city and its…um…untidiness are strong enough that you feel like you could be standing (and smelling) in the middle of Soho. He is able to balance his narrative elements against his description of the cholera virus and medical aspects of the story.

As someone who enjoys the beauty of data visualization this book is a good look into the gathering of real life data and the illumination of a problem through the visualization of the data. Unfortunately, the idea of the ghost map felt a bit perfunctory like it was tacked on to the end of the story. Also, his epilogue, on the difficulties and triumphs of modern urban living in relation to sustainability, disease, and nuclear weapons while a fascinating read seem to take the focus away from his original story (and from the ghost map again). Overall it is a good read, especially if you like medical histories.