Ghost Map and Related Resources

The Victorian Era and Cholera

Cholera Art

Resources to help with The Ghost Map:  London's Most Terrifying Epidemic– and How it changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World


Ghost Map"It is the summer of 1854. Cholera has seized London with unprecedented intensity. A metropolis of more than 2 million people, London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities of the world. But lacking the infrastructure necessary to support its dense population– garbage removal, clean water, sewers– the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure.

Steven JohnsonAs their neighbors begin dying, two men are spurred to action:  the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose faith in a benevolent God is shaken by the seemingly random nature of the victims, and Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion have been dismissed by the scientific community, but who is convinced that he knows how the disease is being transmitted. The Ghost Map chronicles the outbreak's spread and the desperate efforts to put an end to the epidemic– and solve the most pressing riddle of the age."  Book flap. See more information about the book or on the author, Steven Berlin Johnson.

Cholera:  The disease and its history

Cholera BacteriaThe cholera pandemic of the 1850s was not the first one, and certainly was not the last.  There is evidence that the first Cholera epidemic happened during the 1560s in India.The first cholera pandemic was recorded in 1817 and we are now well into our seventh pandemic– one that started in Indonesia and spread worldwide. The London cholera epidemic of 1854 was part of the third pandemic. The third pandemic caused wide spread death in areas other than Britain, where it caused the deaths of over 14,000 people in London alone. There was also a major outbreak in Paris.   Many Irish who were already weakened by the Irish Famine were also killed. The outbreak crossed the Atlantic and hit the United States where it killed over 150,000 people in different areas of the country, including former President James Polk.

Cholera is an acute infection that is caused by the ingestion of food or water that is contaminated with the the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It has an extremely short incubation period, sometimes less than a day and can quickly lead to death if not treated. Cholera is now an easily treated disease.  Usually with oral re-hydration the disease can be cured. Today prevention can be achieved by having adequate water and food cleanliness. There are also Cholera oral vaccines available.

Major players in The Ghost Map

John SnowJohn Snow was a British physician who was a leader in medical hygiene and in anesthesia. He actually was one of the first people to study and use ether (chloroform) during surgeries. Snow was a major skeptic of the then commonly held theory of disease spread– miasma. Miasma was thought to be a poisonous vapor that formed when matter was decaying, thereby making "bad air" that made people ill.  Snow believed that diseases– especially cholera– were not caused by this polluted air, but instead that they were spread though food and water contamination. He published these theories in 1849 in a piece called On the Mode of Communication of Cholera

While investigating the outbreak in 1854 he was able to finally legitimate his theory that disease was spread by contaminated resources. In his research he found that in one area near Broad Street 500 people had died of cholera in 10 days. It was only after government officials followed Henry Whiteheadhis advice to disable the Broad Street Pump that the epidemic was contained.  Mapping was a huge part of his investigation, showing the importance of trying to understand social problems through the use of spatial analysis.

The Reverend Henry Whitehead was an assistant curate at St. Luke's church in Soho during the cholera pandemic. He had been a crusader against false medical theories, and a believer in miasma theory. In trying to disprove John Snow's idea that cholera was spread by contaminated water he came to believe that Snow was right. After the death of Snow, Whitehead became the leading authority on the 1854 outbreak. Cholera came to London again in 1865 and he tried to help contain the new outbreak by publishing his earlier findings and warning that public health lessons learned should not ignored. His advice was ignored, and several thousand Londoners contracted cholera through contaminated water.

Queen VictoriaLife in Victorian England

Victoria served as the queen of the United Kingdom from 1837 until 1901.  When Queen Victoria took the throne, Britain was already on its way to becoming a world power. Because of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture was no longer the primary way to make a living. People were instead getting factory and commercial jobs. By the end of the nineteenth century 80 percent of Britain's population lived in cities.

The Victorian period is known for explosive growth in industry and technology. One of the highlights of Victoria's reign was in 1851 when the Great Exhibition opened.  The Exhibition was  housed in the architectural marvel The Crystal Palace and the international trade show Crystal Palacebecame a symbol of the Victorian Age.  Britain's wealth and technological talents were on display for the entire world.

Technology and science were key during the Victorian Era.  The period saw the invention of such wonders as the daguerreotype, the typewriter, the sewing machine, and pasteurization.  Steam engines were around before, but this is when railroads and steam ships really come to the forefront. Cities began using gas street lights.  During the same period Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Dmitri Mendeleev created the first version of the periodic table, Hebert Spencer coined the term "survival of the fittest" in his Principles of Biology, Charles Babbage invented the first mechanical computer, and Pierre-Simon Laplace formulated the Laplace transform and thereby helped found mathematical physics. Advances in medical hygiene, thanks to people like Florence Nightingale, began to makes strides in reducing patient mortality. The end of the Victorian Age even saw Robert Koch discover the cholera bacillus.

Though technology and urbanization were large parts of the Victorian Era, there were major changes in the arts, literature, and leisure. Books became more affordable thanks to changes in paper-making and printing. In the literary world Charles Dickens became Britian's most popular novelist with literature aimed at social reform like Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities.  Wilkie Collins Croquetbegan writing in a whole new genre, the Sensation Novel--the precursor to detective and suspense fiction, with classics like The Woman in White and The Moonstone. The Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, penned verses like "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and Ulysses

Leisure activities saw growth during the Victorian Era. There was more leisure time because of advances in industry. Lawn tennis and croquet were played. Hunting and dancing became popular. Victorian girls were encouraged to excel at various leisure arts and crafts.  Scrapbooking, needlework and sewing were seen as important skills for an educated lady.  These arts and crafts worked to make sure that there were no idle hands, as "the devil makes work for idle hands" was a popular saying at the time.

Harper's WeeklyThese are just small parts of what happened during the Victorian period, and just a small list of subjects that could relate to The Ghost Map.  If you are interested in news, fashion and advertising during the period, look at Harper's Weekly, where you can see actual articles and papers printed at the time.  Or use the databases and library's catalog to look up other related terms.  Some terms to get you started: topography, pandemic, urban sprawl, public health, Crimean war, Irish Famine, urbanization, medical hygiene, and epidemiology. 

Other events happening during the period in other parts of the world include the Crimean War, publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the United States, the Franco-Austrian War, and the Taiping Rebellion in China.  World leaders at the time include Pope Pius IX, Queen Isabella II of Spain, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, and Presidents of the United States Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan.