Some Topics to Consider in Johnson’s Ghost Map

In his Ted Talk, Johnson quickly recaps the events of the cholera outbreak in 1854 London and suggests that the outbreak “helped create the world and kind of city that we live in today,” which he also argues in The Ghost Map. After describing all the atrocities of the cholera outbreaks, Johnson suggests that the positive outcome of these outbreaks is that they restructured life in the metropolitan cities making living in them sustainable.

In The Ghost Map, Johnson takes us back to 1854 London, when urban population growth outpaced sanitary infrastructure development. Dumping human waste in water, which came as a result of the ‘Nuisance Act’, led to the deadly cholera outbreak. Overall, Johnson is questioning and historicizing the 1854 cholera outbreak narrative while providing scientific and biological explanations of how things occurred. Johnson touches upon topics including the emergence of sustainable, modern metropolitan living, the tortuous nature of scientific inquiry and the high cost of societal progressions. The book is a mixture of scientific popularization, historical, and novel writing. A major discussion that comes about is that of the different scientific responses to cholera at the time, and contagion theory was the miasma model’s biggest opponent. However, for many reasons, no one but a leading medic (Doctor John Snow) was publicly denouncing miasma and suggesting that cholera is a waterborne disease.

The Ghost Map illustrates how miasmatists such as Edwin Chadwick ignored evidence such as scientific evidence, anecdotes, and statistics in order to argue that the putrid smells in the environment were the roots of the countless deaths. His belief that miasma was the reason behind the spread of cholera was shared by many others because of factors such as tradition, religious practices, and biological explanations of the human brain’s alert system where extreme smells trigger disgust. Along with the lack of scientific advancements where because viewing the microbes was usually inaccessible, the mere act of smelling constituted as believing, and social prejudices, allowed rationalizing and justifying the miasma theory. Identifying the air of London as responsible for the large number of deaths, Chadwick pointed that the removal of noxious smells, sometimes characterized as economic waste, would stimulate this route to public health. It is particularly interesting that as Johnson points out, Chadwick founded many of the basics of our current societal life for example: centralizing bureaucracy, expecting the government to take responsibility for its people’s wellbeing when the free market would dismiss such events, and the need for state investment (113). The great irony of Chadwick’s good intentions is articulated by how his “elaborate scheme would deliver the cholera bacteria directly to the mouth of Londoners” (120).


Johnson reveals the devastating and ironic effects of public policies such as “the Nuisance Act” during a time of scientific confusion. This begs the question: “Who should the public trust in midst of crises?”

Considering that they both share many topics in what they are writing about, from archiving and scientific writing to documenting the narratives of different people and their involvement in the epidemic, how can we compare this book with Defoe’s?


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  1. I find this post to be a great explanation of the Johnson’s book. One of the things I’ve been thinking about this post, however, was the question of “who should the public trust in the midst of crises?” You pose this question using the example of the Nuisance Act and accurately direct us to think about scientific confusion, but I don’t think this is the right question to ask.

    I think a big part of Johnson’s arguments as regards progress and the city is that the more we can learn about everything that involves city life, the better prepared we’ll be in the face of crises. I would say that Johnson wants us to be able to trust the state or the government to make the right decision. And this is even the case with the scientific confusion you point out: the Nuisance Act and all the policy decisions made to stop the spread of cholera were not taken in bad faith; they were taken as sensible ideas because they understood cholera as being a result of pungent smell instead of dirty water. Their decisions were taken assuming that the miasma model was the right model.

    In hindsight, we know that cholera is a waterborne bacteria and not an airborne one, but scientific consensus at the time was not clear on this.

    Hence, I don’t think the question should be “Who should the public trust in the midst of crises?” but “Who controls knowledge?” Johnson tells us —up until the point we’ve read— that medical experts were unwilling to accept Snow’s theory of bacteria living in water, though they accepted the water part of it. Policy was based on the expert opinion, so I do think questioning the way knowledge is accepted or changed can lead to a better understanding of the text.

    • Well said, thanks for pointing this out.
      I agree with you on the consensus that the question being asked should concern the larger purpose of how knowledge can be easily skewed in one direction depending on the circumstances (which in this case were quite dire). However, I think the question we posed was trying to the power of public discourse. Simply because at the time, Snow was one of the first people to question a model that was so well-established in the medical community. The control of knowledge, then, might be in the hands of the policymakers and the “body politic” at large, which Johnson is so quick to point out. Furthermore, Johnson’s storytelling technique – despite is inaccurate footnotes regarding factual information- fostered a kind of sentiment that persuades the reader to believe that Snow has all the necessary evidence he needs to prove an entirely new, foreign model. In a way, this illustrates that in light of an epidemic, people find it difficult to control anything (especially knowledge), because even some of their most trusted institutions are in a state of uncertainty.

  2. This post really pulls a lot of interesting aspects of the book that we can further pinpoint and expand on. You mentioned Johnson “provided scientific and biological explanations of how things occurred”, but really, he does more than that. Building on the discussion of genre and narrative during our class today, Johnson really brings out the perspective of the bacteria in these kinds of situations, where suddenly humans are dying out and we don’t really know why. This narrative raises the uncanny roles of the “victims” and the “killers”: suddenly, the killers (the bacteria, in this case) are shown to just be surviving, all they want to do is replicate and reproduce in their respective environments. It is almost the same in saying that humans kill off animals to feed off their energy and protein; bacteria merely seek out the conditions of their most suitable environments, and once they are subjected to that optimal environment, they will thrive to their upmost potential. Seeing bacteria as these killers and us humans as the victims, is really setting every perspective as humans being the very center of everything, when really, we are just living in the microorganism’s territory.

    This goes on to my point that Johnson really does not “personify” or give human qualities to these bacteria that infect and kill a lot of people. He is just setting the line of perspective so that bacteria can be seen as somewhat “equal” or in line with humans as a species, that we are all living organisms together. We are so conditioned to view bacteria and microorganisms as these creatures that can potentially be harmful for us humans, and that they are majorly smaller than we are, yet they do the most to preserve and keep balance in our planet. Johnson effectively narrates the view of bacteria as just being bacteria, where they have their own reasons for being and living, and that they are different than humans in terms of these factors that make bacteria what they are. Essentially, bacteria are not humans, nor do they have to be.

    • Hello.
      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree with you, this goes along with the comment that I made in class in terms of reconsidering calling his work with the bacteria personification because that would be quite anachronistic, and presumes that – as we always do – this world has been built only for us. I do think we agree on this point.
      However, when saying that Johnson provides biological and scientific explanations of how things happened, I think that he actually succeeded at providing a scientific narrative to understand the actual biology behind how the world works. There are many sections I could allude to for proving this, but here’s just one: “All organisms based on the complex eukaryotic cell survive thanks to one of two basic metabolic strategies: photosynthesis and aerobic respiration… The bacteria, on the other hand, make a living for themselves in a dazzling variety of ways: they consume nitrogen right out of the air, extract energy … “(136).
      What I am saying is that in this passage, among many others, we receive a clear and easy to grasp scientific explanation of how the world works without having to do our personal textbook research labor to understand these events. And scientific understanding do not inherently have to be anachronistic!
      I think Johnson does a great job at making science / data / history very accessible to a wide audience.

  3. One of the greatest conflicts that Johnson presents, and that you echo in your post, is the debate between contagion theory and miasma approaches to the spread of disease. As you identify, the contagion theory that John Snow advocates for that understands cholera as being a waterborne disease is portrayed as being “the miasma model’s biggest opponent’.

    I want to raise the concern that Johnson may over emphasize this rivalry of thought to achieve other ends. Despite The Ghost Map’s intended academic approach, Johnson introduces elements to this text that fall outside of this genre and lend to its being read more suitably as a novel than a strictly academic analysis. The addition of elements such as dramatic irony, suspense, and qualitatively-described interactions contribute to the literary nature of this work yet diminish its standing as a studied scholarly text.

    Literary texts possess very different attributes than academic ones, especially in terms of the role of conflict for plot development. Johnson’s dismissal of the academic genre should lead us to question the representation of certain information as potentially being exploited as a literary device, especially the debate surrounding miasma theory and Snow’s contagion approach. Were government officials, researchers, and the characters in the text really so vehemently opposed to the contagion theory that Snow proposed (as Johnson describes), or is this an exaggerated situation that supports a portrayal of these events such that Snow’s model can ‘win out’ over the others to finish the author’s narrative arc of the story?

    • I found this essay over the last week and considered giving it to you guys — though ultimately I didn’t want to add to your required reading load. But for anyone who wants to see how a math prof has used this book to talk about quantitative reasoning, see this essay.

  4. In class (and in the QR essay I linked to in my previous comment) we noted that a cholera researcher, Finkelstein, had reviewed this book. You can find his review here. His actual commentary on the two books he is reviewing (Johnson’s and one other on the same historical episodes) is fairly slim. He writes:

    “The two books read like novels. They describe in detail the events and the environs that enabled (and still enable) cholera epidemics, and they describe and discuss the players — the disease itself, patients, officials, and Snow’s other contemporaries — and their interactions. Florence Nightingale, a miasmatist, is included, as are Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, and others. Neither of the authors is a scientist, but each has done a creditable job of reporting the science. If forced to choose between the two books, I would lean toward Johnson’s because it is more focused; I found myself somewhat bewildered by the details of Hempel’s book. Both authors certainly presented more than I needed to know about John Snow.”

    We had searched for and glanced briefly at Finkelstein’s own writing on cholera. You can find a general essay by him here. He does use colonization terminology quite consistently. Nawal/Noelle raised the question: is this a metaphor, or is it simply the accepted term for the scientific fact of the bacteria’s course of action? Or might it be both? I’m curious to know what you think.

    What we didn’t quite circle around to today, but what I’m still quite interested in talking about, is Johnson’s own use of the language of miasma or contamination to discuss Victorian London’s communications media: the newspapers, medical journals, health reports, etc. For instance, “the fog of miasma” (183) refers both to miasma theory and the persistent misunderstanding it fostered, but Johnson deliberately conflates the theory with the image of fog or a polluted atmosphere. On 199 he talks about the map’s impact as spreading like the disease: “Like the cholera itself, it had a certain quality that made people inclined to reproduce it[.]” Here he’s returning us to some of our earliest discussions in this class: what happens when we invoke biological analogies to understand communications systems and practices?

    • Thank you Bryan for linking the commentary and Finkelstein’s writings.

      Finkelstein’s commentary resonates with me. While reading the book, I noted down plentiful places where Johnson narrated through an omniscient point of view, which is characteristic of fiction writing. Language such as “John Snow would go to his grave never learning…” and “That is how it began.” successfully builds a dramatic yet all-knowing authoritative tone. Parsed with commentary passages explaining biological mechanisms and the urbanization/industrialization progress of London, Johnson did a great job engaging the readers with a period of filth and death, while making the discussion of science and sociological problems accessible to the general public.

      With regard to “colonization” as well as Johnson’s direct comparison between bacteria and human, I don’t consider them to be a source of anthropomorphism. By attributing nonhuman entities human traits, anthropomorphism is effective in invoking emotions such as sympathy. However, I do not believe either Finkelstein or Johnson intends to induce sympathy for bacteria, despite the indispensable role they served in the cycle of life on earth. Instead, by objectively pointing out that they are living organisms and thus would need to subsist on materials just like us, this comparison is convenient to dispose the sense of mystery surrounding cause of cholera and effectively normalize the invisible, destructive and thus scary concept of bacteria, which people grappled with back then.

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