Map making and local knowledge in Victorian London

April 12, 2007 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Thailand flowerI spent Easter reading Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map, which is the historical account of how London’s densely-packed Soho District battled a virulent outbreak of cholera in 1854 that eventually destroyed 50,000 lives in England and Wales. It’s the story of two men with local knowledge – Dr John Snow and Rev Henry Whitehead – who pitted themselves against the medical fraternity of the time who steadfastly believed that disease was miasmic in nature (thought to be caught from the noxious atmosphere swirling around urban areas). Both men, particularly John Snow, are remembered for their discovery that cholera is a water-borne disease.

The Ghost Map illuminates an ecosystem – the urban city – and shows how the spread of a virus, the rise of an industrial city, detective work and scientific enquiry became intertwined. On August 28, 1854, working-class mother, Sarah Lewis, tossed a bucket of soiled water into a cesspool behind her squalid living quarters. Unknown to Sarah Lewis and the rest of London, her baby was infected with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium and the tossed water was contaminated and made its way into the Broad Street communal drinking well. The deadliest outbreak of cholera in London’s history was triggered.

The Broad Street water pump was the local coffeehouse of its time: people gathered from far and wide to drink the sparkling, refreshing water and the deadly, silent bacterium insinuated itself throughout the urban ecosystem via innocent human transmitters. Cholera is easily cured by ingesting large amounts of fluid and electrolytes, but this solution was unknown in a Victorian London seized with the fear of not knowing when or how cholera would strike. Maybe avian flu will become the new cholera epidemic of the 21st Century.

Dr John Snow, a celebrated anaesthesiologist, who had attended the birth of one of Queen Victoria’s children, took a bird’s eye view of the city and produced a map that showed the cholera outbreak occurred in clusters, following a distinctive pattern and a story. Snow was able to ultimately demonstrate that the Broad Street pump was responsible for the outbreak. You can check out his 1854 map here. Snow’s work and his mapping of the disease laid the foundations for epidemiology and the beginnings of modern sewage and water filtration systems.

Snow’s map was a vivid visualisation of death. Dots on the map plotted information about the location of deaths and the communal water pumps were marked with crosses. A distinct cluster of dots appeared around the Broad Street water pump, illuminating the pump as the source of contamination.

Edward Tufte talks about Snow’s map here; and this is a link to the John Snow website, which has lots of interesting resources, including a series of maps of 19th Century London.

What I particularly liked about The Ghost Map is the discussion about the contemporary developing countries and the so-called shadow or squatter cities. These ecosystems are facing the same issues Victorian London faced: unstable growth; inadequate water supplies and sanitation; densely-packed populations. Johnson states that by 2030, it is possible that a quarter of humanity will be squatters, illegally occupying land and living without appropriate civic infrastructure. These rising, dense city networks may provide ideal conditions for cholera or avian flu to run rampant throughout.

The perils of density now mean that we may need to fear a pandemic on a global, not just a local or city scale.


Entry filed under: Books, Cartography, Complexity, History, Knowledge Management, Social networks, Social problems.

Think! don’t Blink! Argument mapping improves critical thinking

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tony Hall  |  April 16, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Here’s a picture of that (replica) hand-pump in Soho,
    and a link to a (whimsical) 1.15min slideshow (made with ‘homeless’ group).
    and here’s another article that relates to your piece –
    ‘Megalopolis and micro-organism’ by Tony Gould

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  April 16, 2007 at 8:21 pm

    Thx for the links Tony! most interesting indeed, particularly the last one.


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