Pathways of disease

Having spent countless hours studying maps of disease for a chapter in Mapping Society, I was intrigued by a recent episode of the LRB’s Talking Politics podcast, with David Runciman interviewing historian Professor Sir Richard Evans, author of the superbly researched Death in Hamburg. Professor Evans was drawing out the parallels between cholera epidemics of the 19th century and the present-day coronavirus epidemic, though he highlights an important distinction between the 19th century, which was a period when science was used to investigate the causes of diseases, and the 20/21st centuries, when the focus is on finding cures.

The Map of Cholera in 1832 in Hamburg shown below illustrates the disproportionate impact on people living in poverty in the city at the time. As is so often the case, this was due to contaminated water supplies and substandard living conditions.

Map of Cholera in 1832, in Hamburg, Germany, by Dr. Rothenburg, using hand-coloured gradations of red—via the chloropleth method—to show the relative, aggregate incidence of the disease. It was reprinted in an 1850 British parliamentary report on cholera, emphasizing the international appeal of this cartography. The map shows the highest incidence of mortality amongst people living alongside the river. Copyright: Princeton University.

The cholera epidemic of Hamburg in 1870 was at a critical point in time for the development of epidemiology as a science. Despite John Snow’s discoveries in 1850s London that cholera was a water-borne disease, as well as Pasteur and others pioneering germ theories of the 1860s, miasmatism (the belief that disease was spread through bad air) continued well into the latter quarter of the century. The persistent lack of confidence in science was coupled, in the case of Hamburg, with pressures from the mercantile elite for whom accepting the germ theory would have led to, as Attila Tárnok has stated, “consequences of … substantial investments in the city’s infrastructure, including water cleaning, sewage treatment, quarantine, and other measures” (Tárnok, 2020).

File:Hygieia Fountain at Hamburg Rathaus - panoramio.jpg
The Hygeia fountain (1895/96) built as a reminder to the last cholera outbreak in 1882 in Germany. Image copyright Björn S., Hygieia Fountain at Hamburg Rathaus – panoramioCC BY-SA 3.0

The reemergence of the disease in 1870 came as a surprise. The same issues of overcrowding and insanitary living conditions in low-lying areas of the city (though the correlation was somewhat the wrong way around: the poor were more likely to live in low-lying areas) as revealed by the myriad maps of cholera drawn up through the century coincided in this instance with a lack of political will, Evans maintains, that meant that the city suffered disproportionately badly from a disease that was, even in the best of cases, devastating. In Hamburg, trade was a critical aspect of its identity: a city effectively run by its merchants, who preferred to ignore those medics who supported a disease theory that might suppress trade through quarantine. By the 1890s the spread of disease was at its worst due to wider geopolitical conditions, and consequential population movements, alongside the development of the railways.

The impact of both political and societal structures during that period is telling. Professor Evans emphasises the negative effects of the lassez-faire attitude of local business people and administrative incompetence, but also broader societal differences that stemmed from the city’s relatively autonomous status within Germany, as well as its outlook as an economic centre. As we see today, even among democratic governments, different approaches to controlling contagion tend to coincide with differing levels of acceptability among local societies. While one hesitates to draw conclusions from the current data, it is hoped that we won’t need to wait another century before we draw lessons from the decisions made over the past few months.


Evans RJ. Death in Hamburg: Society and politics in the cholera years. United Kingdom: Penguin Books; 1830‐1910.

Tárnok, A. (2020), “The Cholera Epidemics in Hamburg and What to Learn for COVID‐19 (SARS‐CoV‐2)”. Cytometry, 97: 337-339. DOI:10.1002/cyto.a.23999

Vaughan, L. (2018), Chapter 2 Disease, health and housing (pp. 24-60) in Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography. London: UCL Press. DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv550dcj.7

‘New Grub Street’ and the Charles Booth map

I’ve been reading the Oxford World’s Classics edition of George Gissing’s New Grub Street[1]. Its Appendix discusses the novel’s setting in London, whereby Katherine Mullin makes the point that Gissing’s specificity of real districts and streets results in a reading of the novel that is more ‘allusive’ than ‘illusive’. The city is evoked as a source of knowledge the reader must learn to acquire, rather than the mysterious imaginative world of a writer such as Dickens.

Section of Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889, sheets 1-4 compiled into a single image. Image copyright David Rumsey Map Collection,

For a scholar of Charles Booth, the novel’s cartographic precision is in fact a positive factor. As in Julienne Hanson’s 1976 essay ‘Time and Space in two nineteenth century novels’,[2] a spatial reading of the novel allows the reader to trace social meaning from descriptions of the real-life places depicted there.

Mullin uses a black and white version of the 1889 edition of the Booth map (see colour version above) to make her point that the area of London where most of the central characters live is the set of streets surrounding the British Museum. Yet while the museum is surrounded by some of the smartest streets and squares of Bloomsbury, the novel’s characters, as Mullin points out, ‘frequently occupy the cheaper portions of relatively comfortable dwellings.’ Although there is no evidence that Gissing ever saw the Booth maps (although they had been exhibited in public by the time the novel was being written), Mullin’s analysis of the range of streets on which Yules, Milvain, and Whelpdale variously live, shows that Gissing chose a usefully variegated range of comfort, as classified by Booth, with a careful choice of lodgings within those areas to indicate … ‘the impecuniousness of the Grub Streeters…, the top floor or garret, or the room in a lodging house. It emphasizes their marginality and at the same time ensures that the protagonists are constantly confronted with a better standard of living.’ Moreover, she shows that the centrality of their residences serves to indicate the characters’ ‘need to economize on mobility as far as possible’. Thus, Mullin’s essay shows that Gissing’s choice of dwelling, street and neighbourhood demonstrates a highly nuanced reading of the significance of the fine delineations of poverty situation that Booth himself would recognise.

[1] Gissing G. (1891/2016) New Grub Street (edited by Katherine Mullin). Oxford University Press: Oxford. This blog post refers to Dr Mullin’s Appendix to the book on pages 459-63.

[2] Hanson J. (1976) Time and space in two nineteenth century novels. Architectural Association Quarterly 8: 32-38.

Mapping spatial cultures

Dr Sam Griffiths and I have just published a new paper in Urban History: “Mapping spatial cultures: contributions of space syntax to research in the urban history of the nineteenth-century city”.

The paper forms part of a special issue edited by Professor Richard Rodger (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Susanne Rau (University of Erfurt): Thinking Spatially: New Horizons for Urban History, that discusses the latest mapping and spatial analysis techniques that are being employed by urban historians to explore the density, frequency and proximity of various features of towns and cities.

In the paper we argue that the theory and methods of space syntax can help rebalance the prevailing cultural perspective, which views maps as ideological representations, with an analytical approach that emphasises maps as sources for understanding space and spatial relationships embedded in built forms. The quantitative descriptions of urban street networks produced by space syntax analyses can be used to formulate and test hypotheses about patterns of urban movement, encounter and socio-economic activity in the past, that can help in the interpretation of other historical source materials to give an overall account of urban spatial culture. In this article the authors explain how space syntax, an theory and method originally developed in the field of architectural research, is making a distinctive contribution to research in social and urban history.

Location of political meeting places overlaid on space syntax street network analysis of
Manchester in 1849, highlighting in dark grey the top 20 per cent most accessible segments. Image by
Blerta Dino, Sam Griffiths and Katrina Navickas. See for more on Dr Navickas’ research.

The key principles of the method are explained by clarifying the relationship of space syntax to HGIS (Historical Geographical Information Systems) and through a worked example of a research undertaken into political meeting places (see image above). A survey of research into the urban history of the nineteenth-century city using space syntax is used to highlight a number of important methodological themes and also demonstrates the range of innovative contributions this interdisciplinary approach is able to advance. A final, theoretical, section reflects on maps and the practice of ‘mapping’ from a space syntax perspective.

The paper can be downloaded from the UCL Discovery repository here: