Archive for March, 2019

You knew everything John Snow…

I would like us to think about the narrative form of the Ghost Map in three different mediums: the novel itself, the TED talk posted by our conveners and the youtube video summary.

In his novel, Johnson employes a unique storytelling technique using a “bird’s eye view” and zooms in and out when analyzing the cholera epidemic. Johnson does not view the disease as an independent force, but rather as a circumstance-induced force that does not only contaminate the single body, but also the body politic as a whole. This “bird’s eye view” was also employed by John Snow, who had a holistic view of the city and its function and did not study cholera in isolation. Unlike the believers of the miasma theory that was mainly evidenced by a pungent smell, Snow used a complex methodological approach and successfully managed to identify the source of the cholera outbreak. While Johnson acknowledges humans, in particular, Snow and Whitehead, he also prioritizes bacteria, whose collective agency is superior to that of humans.

However, the TED talk embarks on a more storytelling form than the novel itself. The TED talk at first seems like a stand-up comedy, as Johnson starts his talk with a few jokes. In his TED talk, Johnson introduces his audience to cholera by telling the story of “patient zero,” which is a common narrative device in contagion movies and stories. While the TED talk does not go into the specific details about the microbe, Johnson touches upon the body politic and he also argues that we should trust locals like Snow and Whitehead amid a crisis.

Finally, the video summary creates suspense and embarks on a storytelling frame, even more so than the TED talk. The video summary focuses on the “patient zero” and Snow’s cholera map and does not touch upon on the other protagonists of the novel (Whitehead, the bacteria, and the city).  

As we go from the novel to the Ted talk to the video summary, it seems that we are losing the “bird’s eye view” as there is an increasing focus on the human characters of the story. This raises the question of how does the narrative framework shape our understanding of an epidemic outbreak?

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?