The Ghost Map

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The Ghost Map
The Ghost Map cover.jpg
AuthorSteven Berlin Johnson
Publication date
October 19, 2006

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World is a book by Steven Berlin Johnson in which he describes the most intense outbreak of cholera in Victorian London (See 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak) The book incorporated the idea of gemeinschaft, dealing with the effects of an epidemic in a city of common values, language, and traditions.[1] The two central protagonists are Dr. John Snow, who created a map of the cholera cases, and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose extensive knowledge of the local community helped determine the initial cause of the outbreak. Dr. John Snow was a revered anesthetist who carried out epidemiological work in Soho, London.[2] Around the mid-1850s Snow figured out the source of cholera contamination to be the drinking water from the Broad Street pump.[2] The book was released on 19 October 2006. The cholera outbreak from 1848-49 killed approximately 54,000-62,000 in London, and the outbreak from 1853-54 killed an estimated 31,000 in London.[3]

Chapter Summaries[edit]

Chapter 1: The Night Soil Men[edit]

The novel starts on speaking about individuals in Victorian London who are scavengers and recycling resources. Even though at the time during the 19th century London was the richest country in the world at the time. The author speaks on the toilets at the time were patented and therefore they were using more water than they needed to. Because of the excess use of water, sewages were overflowing. The rest of the chapter speak on how the city is getting more popularized and more polluted.

Chapter 2: Eyes Sunk, Lips Dark Blue[edit]

We see the first case of Cholera, but it is not explicitly said that it is cholera. Henry Whitehead is introduced in this chapter and is known as a man who likes to converse about politics and science. He is a man of the people because he is also a priest that works in St. Luke’s church. Johnson mentions that there is a ton of pollution in that area and there is a bunch of horse manure there. He then mentions the water pump at Broad Street and how it was the most popular water pump because it was colder than all of the other ones. Mr. G, a community tailor, is said to be sick of his stomach and at first it is thought to have food poisoning. Mr. G started to get a lot of the symptoms that cholera causes. Within a few hours, Mr. G and a dozen other Soho residents died. A few days go by and hundreds of Soho residents have died, and many are sick. Medical officer John Rodgers goes from house to house speaking to the ill and he knew that they were in the midst of a Cholera outbreak.

Chapter 3: The Investigator[edit]

This was the deadliest outbreak of cholera there has ever been. The chapter starts off with the introduction of John Snow, a successful doctor that figured out one of the earlier anesthetics. He found ether dosages and then later found out that chloroform was a better anesthesia than ether. The chapter speaks about the many theories behind how people got cholera. The most popular according to doctors is the miasma theory. William Farr, London’s sanitation commissioner and chief demographer, believes this theory as well. By 1849, Snow proposed that cholera was contracted through either contact with waste or ingesting contaminated water. Still doctors believed that we haven’t figured out the cause of cholera. John Snow was going through William Farr’s mortality numbers of 1845 and the chapter ends with both Snow and Whitehead being served water from Broad Street and Whitehead drinks from it.

Chapter 4: That is to say, Jo has not yet died[edit]

Soho is a ghost town and the Eley Brothers Factory is almost abandons. On the other hand, the Lion Brewery (which is not too far away from the factory) had no cases of cholera. The famous patriarch of Waterstone is dying from cholera and people are speculating that the outbreak had to do with the new sewage system being in contact with human corpses. Snow and Farr are collaborating in researching cholera. They sample water from all over the place in London. During this investigation, another outbreak of cholera happens, and Snow sees this as an opportunity to improve his research.

Chapter 5: All Smell is Disease[edit]

Soho begins to improve, but some were still dying. The ones that survived attributed it to the Broad Street pump water that they have been drinking. Medical officers from the Board of Health visited Soho and poured bleach and chloride all throughout the city. The president of the board is introduced (Benjamin Hall) and the predecessor is also mentioned (Edwin Chadwick). Chadwick caused many deaths because of his belief that disease was passed on by bad smell. Chadwick innovated a new sewage pipes that only made the problem worse. The author then talks about the miasma theory and why it was so popular and how bad smells related to disease. John Snow hypothesizes if the Broad Street water pump was responsible for the outbreak.

Chapter 6: Building the Case[edit]

John Snow goes tries to perform his experiment by interviewing Mr. G who lives a little farther from Broad Street (A place called Cross Street) and using the water pump would be a little inconvenient. He finds out that the disease has taken his life and he can no longer interview him. Snow then decides to interview people that lived in Broad Street but did not get sick due to not drinking by the pump. Snow realized that workers from the Lion Brewery did not get sick because they were paid partly with beer and had their own personal fountain. Whitehead is going around talking to people and he went to mass and saw that ST. Luke’s Scripture reader, James Richardson, was not there. When Whitehead went to go check up on him and he saw that he was sick with cholera. James Richardson mentions that he had drank from the Broad Street pump. Whitehead thinks there is a correlation between the water from the pump and the outbreak but then later thinks he is silly. He continues to drink a glass of water from the pump. John Snow gathers more research and more proof that the outbreak had to do with the Broad Street water source. He comes across the problem of what the plan of action should be.

Chapter 7: The Pump Handle[edit]

The board of governors of St. James parish work to figure out how the community should deal with this outbreak. John Snow provided his input and made very good claims to close down the well. Ultimately, the Board votes for the well to be closed. Henry Whitehead didn’t like that they closed the pump down and requests that they open it up again, but the Board declines. Whitehead starts to do research on the elderly that survived the disease to disprove that the water pump was what caused the cholera outbreak. Whitehead challenges John Snow’s theory when he learns that some people argue that drinking the water helped cure the disease. He later sees John Snow's point and agrees with him. However, he Committee declines Snow’s proposal that the outbreak was due to water contamination.

Chapter 8: Conclusion[edit]

John Snow makes a map of the cholera outbreak. Years went by and the miasma theory was dying down. Unfortunately, John Snow had a stroke and wasn’t able to see the new sewage system and the slow change from the miasma theory. During the 1880s a scientist by the name of Robert Koch discovered the bacteria that cause cholera. The author speaks on how John Snow and Henry Whitehead were pioneers who helped improve the understanding of disease.



Death is a relevant theme because the cholera epidemic was a dangerous time and many people died in Victorian London. The book shows detailed description of the amount of dead bodies there were just lying on the floor. A tragic way to look at your people, just like dead animals. However, death is needed in order to take a plan of action and really find the problem and a solution as fast as possible so that less people are affected. In this story, we see how death can be used to find common ways of getting sick and eventually with the help from John Snow and others, they were able to find the root of the problem and slow the epidemic down.


The author says that he has an interest in the scientific field, but he has no background of knowledge. We see a lot of science in this novel and John Snow is seen as brilliant for his work in improving anesthetics. A lot of research is done to try and find the root of the problem. Cholera seems to have killed many, but John Snow and Henry Whitehead made sure to interview as many people to find something in common and then hopefully come up with a conclusion. This is the general scientific process of doing an experiment. During the end of the novel we see how science has improved and it is mentioned that people boiled their water before drinking it so they did not drink contaminated water.

Growth as a Community[edit]

In the middle to end of the book we really see the community coming together and trying to find a solution to the cholera outbreak. We see Board meetings that take into account all arguments and shutting down the Broad Street pump saved many people because there would have been more cholera outbreaks and even more people would have died. After the death of John Snow, we see that the people are planning on making a new sewage system and it all has to do with the more research found. The community made sure to come together and improve in order to help the future generation live a better life.


Steven Johnson's motivation to writing this non-fiction was his interest in science and especially the impact cholera had on a Victorian society. He liked how we know now that cholera is found in the water and back then, it was thought to be in the air. The author wanted to give more credit to the 19th century doctors that made it possible to come closer to a solution to cholera. He also wanted to show that as a community, anything is possible and even the biggest problems can be solved if we work together. He also wants us to listen to people that have done extensive research and not ignore or push their ideas to the side.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cities." World of Sociology, Gale. Farmington: Gale, 2001. Credo Reference.
  2. ^ a b "Cholera." Black's Medical Dictionary, 42nd Edition. London: A&C Black, 2010.
  3. ^ Kohn, George Childs (2008). Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present. New York : Facts on File. p. 46. ISBN 9780816069354.

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