The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map

The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic-- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Book - 2006
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A thrilling account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London and a brilliant exploration of how Dr John Snow's solution revolutionised the way people think about disease, cities, science and the modern world. This is an endlessly fascinating and compelling account of the summer of 1854, from the microbial level to the macro-urban-theory level, including, most importantly, the human level. A cultural critic with a poet's soul.' - The Village Voice'
Publisher: New York : Riverhead Books, 2006.
ISBN: 9781594489259
Branch Call Number: 614.514 JOHNSON
Characteristics: 299 p. : ill., maps ; 24 cm.

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From Library Staff

The Ghost Map has everything a great medical history book should have: compelling history, insightful analysis, plus a detailed description of exactly what the disease in question (in this case, cholera) does to the human body. Outstanding.

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PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

The Ghost Map could have been a great book. In fact it could have been several great books. As it is, it's still an interesting book and I would still recommend it if you're interested in science and the history of science, as well as being a timely book for COVID.

Let's start with a line from the publisher's blurb: "The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow." Wait, what? Snow was definitely in there, along with his fight uphill battle to prove to the medical elite that Cholera was not caused by "miasma" but it certainly isn't all about him and his life. More detail about Snow, and Whitehead could have been interesting, or indeed, their own books, with the cholera outbreak as a centerpiece. Another piece of the story was how crowded and-- festering is the only word I can think of-- London was. With quadruple the population density of Manhattan today and a nonexistent sewer infrastructure, it was a miracle anyone was able to avoid his neighbors' poop.

And of course there is the story of the 1854 cholera outbreak, a particularly deadly form that took victims from health to death in as little as 12 hours. In the end, The Ghost Map is a less than fascinating account of cholera in London and the research that lead to a belief in cholera as a waterborne illness. The author uses this as a jumping-off point for discussions about urbanization and its future. It could have really benefitted from additional revision to focus and build the story. A book I'm glad I read but I wasn't glad while I was reading it.

Jul 30, 2020

Very interesting read, even though it deals with heavy subject matter; epidemiology, inequality. death, etc., it is well written and smartly paced, and certainly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of parallels and lessons to be learned here.

Feb 23, 2020

I agree with others who said the repetitive summarizing of "the story thus far" at the end of every chapter wasn't necessary. I'll also add this isn't a book for people with weak stomachs; the description of a "night-soil men's" jobs, for example; the disgusting way sewage was disposed of in the days before most people had indoor flush toilets; and particularly the process of the cholera bacteria's infection of the host and how the "host" responds were quite graphic. But then, my mom was an RN when I was growing up, and I work in health care, so I'm quite used to having such discussions at mealtime, even. I'd have given it 5 stars except for the already-mentioned repitition.

HCL_staff_reviews Aug 12, 2019

On August 28, 1854 after cleaning up her sick infant's diarrhea, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis innocently tossed the bucket of soiled water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building. When the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history subsequently broke out, Dr. John Snow fought the miasmatists, who believed that foul air caused disease, to prove that the epidemic was being caused by contaminated water in one of the local public water pumps. — Jennifer L., Ridgedale Library

Mar 26, 2019

The beginning of the book would get five stars--it is outstanding: exciting, well-written, informative, a page turner. When an author can do this to history, you know they have talent.

The middle of the book was still pretty good. I'd give it four stars. It was a bit repetitive, which made it slow-moving. Before revealing each new detail, the whole plot/history up to that point is revisited/summarized. It could have been edited, regrouped, and trimmed and it would have been much better. He didn't need to say the same thing in 10 different ways. Instead of building the story and excitement, it detracted from it.

The ending, meaning the conclusion and epilogue, were terrible. One star. Some of it was interesting and relevant to the history and applying that history to today's world, but for the most part I wish I'd skipped it. The ending is also very dated. It was at this point that I realized that the book was published in 2006, and it sorely shows.

Also, I honestly don't think this was London's most terrifying epidemic. So that's a little misleading.. Still overall a good book.

Nov 28, 2018

A fun read from multidisciplinary science writer Steven Johnson about the birth of modern epidemiology. I'd also recommend Johnson's previous book, Emergence.

Dec 12, 2017

For me, the focus on Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead shows how those who would fix social problems often have to both explore new methods and fight entrenched beliefs. Authorities were firmly convinced that “miasma” was the cause of disease; they knew that the bad smells in the poor parts of town were the source of the pestilence. Thus, the Board of Health Committee didn’t accept the waterborne theory because “their field of vision had been framed by the boundaries of miasma months before, when Benjamin Holt first outlined the committee’s objectives. This blanket dismissal of Snow’s theory seems like a colossal folly to us now, but these were not unreasonable men. They were not hacks, working for Victorian special-interest groups. They were not blinded by politics or personal ambition. They were blinded, instead, by an idea.” That's a classic example of learning from the mistakes of the past, it seems to me.

Apr 11, 2017

When I first heard this title, I was, like, cool, a book about how ghosts map out how to haunt people! But, actually, it's about a cholera outbreak, which is not cool at all. Some other disease books include "The Great Mortality" (about the plague) and "The Hot Zone" (about ebola). Steven Johnson also wrote "Everything Bad is Good For You."

Feb 08, 2017

This was an interesting, yet difficult, book to read. The history nerd in me knew a little about the Broad Street Pump calamity in Victorian England. I also knew about Snow's work inn finding the source of the cholera epidemic of 1854, but not about the role played by Reverend Whitehead. I think I would have enjoyed it more had Johnson just stuck with just the history and not spent so much time on a soapbox about the social indifference to London's poorer inhabitants.

lbarkema Jan 05, 2016

This book was an engrossing look at cholera and it's effects, specifically on an outbreak in Victorian London in the neighborhood of what is currently Soho, where two local men figured out the cause and spread of this incredibly deadly disease. I enjoyed the history bits of dirty London and the housing there, as well as the science/medical information about cholera and more of the public health side of things. The reason I knocked it down a tad is for the fact of the epilogue. I don't think it was necessary at all, and I agree with reviewers who thought it should have been a separate essay that Johnson should have submitted somewhere else and not in this book. While he made some good points, it just didn't seem to fit and felt a bit like a rant. I actually thought that the ending to the chapter preceding the epilogue would have been an excellent ending for the content of this book. Overall, I recommend it for an interesting look at the time period and this horrible disease, but just skip the epilogue.

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PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

if we are to keep alive the model of sustainable metropolitan life that Snow and Whitehead helped make possible 150 years ago, it is incumbent on us to do, at the very least, two things. The first is to embrace—as a matter of philosophy and public policy—the insights of science, in particular the fields that descend from the great Darwinian revolution that began only a matter of years after Snow’s death: genetics, evolutionary theory, environmental science. Our safety depends on being able to predict the evolutionary path that viruses and bacteria will take in the coming decades, just as safety in Snow’s day depended on the rational application of the scientific method to public-health matters. Superstition, then and now, is not just a threat to the truth. It’s also a threat to national security...

PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

Chadwick helped solidify, if not outright invent, an ensemble of categories that we now take for granted: that the state should directly engage in protecting the health and well-being of its citizens, particularly the poorest among them; that a centralized bureaucracy of experts can solve societal problems that free markets either exacerbate or ignore; that public-health issues often require massive state investment in infrastructure or prevention.

PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

One study of mortality rates from 1842 had found that the average “gentleman” died at forty-five, while the average tradesman died in his mid-twenties. The laboring classes fared even worse: in Bethnal Green, the average life expectancy for the working poor was sixteen years. These numbers are so shockingly low because life was especially deadly for young children. The 1842 study found that 62 percent of all recorded deaths were of children under five.

PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

Victorian medical refrain was, essentially: Take a few hits of opium and call me in the morning.

PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

By 1851, the subdistrict of Berwick Street on the west side of Soho was the most densely populated of all 135 subdistricts that made up Greater London, with 432 people to the acre. (Even with its skyscrapers, Manhattan today only houses around 100 per acre.)

PimaLib_ChristineR Nov 16, 2020

London in 1854 was a Victorian metropolis trying to make do with an Elizabethan public infrastructure.

Jul 30, 2020

[I]f our current prospects seem bleak, we need only think of Snow and Whitehead on the streets of London so many years ago. The scourge of cholera then seemed intractable, too, and superstition seemed destined to rule the day. But in the end, or at least as close to the end as we've gotten so far, the forces of reason won out. The pump handle was removed; the map was drawn; the miasma theory was put to rest; the sewers built; the water ran clean. This is the ultimate solace that the Broad Street outbreak offers our current predicament, with all its unique challenges. However profound the threats are that confront us today, they are solvable, if we acknowledge the underlying problem, if we listen to science and not superstition, if we keep a channel open for dissenting voices that might actually have real answers... So let's get on with it.


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SpringAltman Jun 27, 2014

SpringAltman thinks this title is suitable for 15 years and over


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SpringAltman Jun 27, 2014

A cholera outbreak in London causes many to look for the orgin and how to cure the world of this awful epidemic


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