Views & Reviews Review of the week

Watching the detectives: how the cholera riddle was solved

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: (Published 22 March 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:639
  1. Wendy Moore, journalist, London (

    A new book plunges the reader into a Victorian urban nightmare, charting in novelistic fashion the 1854 cholera epidemic, finds Wendy Moore

    The story of cholera is as much the story of human waste and its disposal as the discovery and defeat of a disease. It is fitting, therefore, that Steven Johnson's book The Ghost Map opens with a gripping description of the army of scavengers that once roamed London to rummage through the rubbish and detritus the city's dwellers left behind.

    Recreating this Dickensian world of “excrement and death,” Johnson describes the toshers who scoured the river for saleable metal, the mudlarks who salvaged the rubbish even the toshers discarded, the night soil men who emptied household cesspits in the hours of darkness, and the “pure finders” who possessed perhaps the least enviable job of all—collecting dog excrement for use in the leather tanning industry.

    From this headlong plunge into the Victorian urban nightmare, where dirt and disease worked a profitable partnership, Johnson unrolls the story of the 1854 cholera epidemic, which led the physician …

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