London in the Time of Cholera

To complement the dense theoretical readings on time-space compression, global civil society, and complexity theory required for my current masters program, I have been trying to balance those headache-inducing concepts with something a bit, I don’t know, lighter. Yet somehow the most recent book I’ve managed to read for leisure is all about death and bad luck. I picked up The Ghost Map back home before leaving for London simply because it’s a story about London in the midst of the city’s Victorian heyday…and a story in the midst of the city’s sorely lacking sewage system. The book is a non-fictional account of one of the worst cholera outbreaks the city had ever seen, in the year 1854. Looking at a time that has been widely portrayed by Charles Dickens, The Ghost Map unfolds as a scientific mystery about the origins of cholera and author Steven Johnson manages to infuse suspense from page to page as a doctor, John Snow, and a reverend, Henry Whitehead, try to make sense of the situation and upend the miasma theory (a belief that the virus spread due to polluted air) notorious of Victorian rhetoric. Having walked the streets of Soho, where this particular outbreak originated, it was definitely an intriguing story to follow, particularly the struggles of Snow, who faced so much adversity in trying to persuade people, especially government and health officials, who were too closed-minded to believe that this virus could be spread by the consumption of contaminated water. Yet Snow’s developments in gaining more understanding of cholera helped future generations of scientists to eventually influence changes in the planning of city infrastructures, therefore leading to more efficient and safer urban conditions that we are familiar with today. Of course, Johnson’s epilogue does not forget that there are many cities in the developing world today who are still at the point where London was over 150 years ago, still dealing with cholera outbreaks, and also repeatedly warns readers that biological warfare or another pandemic in the likes of the cataclysmic 1918 “Spanish Flu” are still looming threats. Although he tries to reassure readers that the advances in science and medicine should hopefully help abate or prevent such events, I think I’d rather try not to think too hard about such possibilities with a pint or two…a pint I could get at The John Snow pub, at the very location of the outbreak that made him (posthumously) famous.

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