The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

3.92 of 5 stars 3.92  ·  rating details  ·  15,783 ratings  ·  1,750 reviews
Trust Steven Johnson to put an intriguing and unconventional spin on a well-known story! The nimble-minded nonfiction writer who dazzled us in Emergence, Mind Wide Open, and Everything Bad Is Good for You now parses a storied incident from the annals of public health-- the Broad Street cholera epidemic of 1854, a deadly outbreak that literally decimated London's population...more
Hardcover, 299 pages
Published October 19th 2006 by Riverhead Hardcover
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Kay
By turns thought-provoking and irritating, The Ghost Map meanders from its central story -- how an unorthodox physician found the source of a cholera epidemic that swept through London in 1854 -- into a host of other issues. Expecting a more straightforward account of the unraveling of this medical mystery, I set this book aside twice in frustration, bored with the author's tendency to stretch out the narrative, and particularly his repeated examination of the hold the "miasma paradigm" had upon...more
Kirsti
Sep 07, 2008 Kirsti rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history/psychology buffs
Shelves: history, nonfiction
WARNING: Do not read this review if you are squeamish. Or eating.

This book is about cholera, and as a result, the author uses an impressive number of words for shit--including excrement, ordure, human waste, and the Victorian euphemism night soil. And shit, of course.

Johnson explains that a key question in the development of civilization has always been "What are we going to do with all this shit?" This book dramatically improved my vocabulary regarding topics related to 1850s London. For insta...more
Eric_W
Cholera is a nasty little bug. Once ingested, it forms colonies on the intestinal wall, begins to reproduce with ferocious speed, and proceeds to trick the cells into excreting water rather than absorb it. It doesn't really matter of the host dies soon, because millions of new little cholera bacteria rush out of the host with the excreta waiting for the next person to ingest some excrement. That is the key. The only was to get cholera is by ingesting the excrement of another person so infected....more
Kerrie
This started out as an engrossing account of the filth and unhygienic conditions of Victorian London, where people literally piled shit in their basements, later to be removed by "nightsoil men" and a cemetery meant for 3000 bodies ended up containing 80,000 and gravediggers would jump up and down on the bodies in order to make room for more. It sounds insane today that anyone could live in those conditions and what's more...WTF did Victorian London SMELL like?

However, after about half the book...more
Rachel
I read The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World because I wanted to learn more about a story I thought I knew. The story I learned goes like this: during a terrible cholera outbreak in Victorian London, Dr. John Snow made a revolutionary map of the mortality, was like, “Holy crap! The deaths all radiate out from this one pump!” and removed the pump handle, thus halting the epidemic dead in its tracks.

Turns out, there...more
Moira Russell
This review is so EXACTLY my take on this book I'm just going to link to it.

The spine of the book, and the best part of it, is the long detailed explanation of what Snow and Whitehead did to trace (not stop!) the cholera epidemic, ending with that famous pump handle. I loved them -- they're seriously like little scientist versions of Holmes and Watson. The history-of-science parts discussing the evolutionary shift in ideas about contagion are also quite good. But the book falls down badly in so...more
Trevor
When I was complaining about how bad Johnson’s The Invention of Air was I hadn’t realised that I had read and enjoyed his Mind Wide Open Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. Then David and Eric told me to try this one – and they are right, this is a far better book. The things that annoyed me in The Invention of Air (the asides on paradigms and Hegalian dialectics for instance) are both in part rehearsed here, but in a way that assumes either that the reader has heard of these ideas...more
Lynne
I enjoyed most of the book, but I hated the concluding chapter. I would have preferred it if he had stuck to his subject rather than stringing together a series of personal opinions. The discussion of the relative risks of a nuclear holocaust versus bio-terrorism via a genetically engineered virus seemed forced. Does it really matter? The author somehow managed to work in references to both the Iranian nuclear policy and intelligent design in a book about cholera in the nineteenth century. Was t...more
Dan Schiff
This starts out so well, with descriptions of the guys who used to scavenge in the sewers of London. It then goes into the nitty gritty of where all those Londoners used to put their shit (basically a lot of them just piled it up in their cellars). I love this kind of thing -- looking at the forgotten underside of a period or place in history.

Unfortunately, Johnson runs out of steam pretty fast. He repeats the same points over and over again about how crazy people were for believing that smells...more
Jamie
I think I can pretty say that this book by Steven Johnson isn't going to be for everybody. It tells the story of how several men tried to cope with and understand a massive outbreak of cholera in London during 1854. Yeah, riveting, right?

Actually, it was. In addition to talking about the disease itself (which basically causes death by diarrhea), the book follows the quest of a London doctor named John Snow as he propels the nascent science of epidemiology into its own. Snow went door to door in...more
Croaker
On August 28, 1854, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis emptied a bucket of waste water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history. A Victorian city with more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference. This is the story of two men: Dr. John Snow who pioneered the use of ether as an anesthetic in the United Kingdom, and on a personal note, mentions the first medical use of ether by Dr. William Morton; a...more
Sandi
This book starts out as a fascinating exploration of poop disposal, or the lack thereof, in mid-19th century London. Forget any romanticism you may have about the Victorian London. It was absolutely disgusting as Steven Johnson makes horrifyingly clear in "Ghost Map". People dumped poop out their windows, stored it in their cellars, flushed it into sewers that ran straight to the Thames. London was a stinky, poopy place.

The total free-for-all of sewage disposal led to several devastating outbrea...more
David
This was an excellent account of the (successful) efforts of two men, John Snow and Henry Whitehead, to understand the means by which cholera is transmitted, following an 1854 outbreak in London's Soho district. The "ghost map" constructed by Snow, and the identification of the index case by Whitehead, were eventually successful in displacing the prevailing "miasma theory" by establishing linkage beyond reasonable doubt to contamination at a single water pump (the Broad Street pump).

Johnson does...more
Diane
This is one of the best nonfiction books I've read in awhile. It's about a cholera epidemic in London in 1854, and the author does a great job of explaining the various factors that helped cause the outbreak, including a population explosion and the lack of a proper sewage system. The book follows Dr. John Snow, who was the first person to identify that cholera was spread by contaminated drinking water.

I would recommend this book to history buffs, fans of epidemiology and also Anglophiles, beca...more
Suzanne
While the story of Dr. John Snow's efforts to trace the source of cholera in 1850's London was fascinating, what delighted me about this book was the way Johnson also pulled in perspectives on scientific progress, impromptu infrastructures, the evolution of metropolitan life, the limits of city size, and the sorts of ingenuity that amateurs can contribute toward solving really big problems. Like, who is pooping in the water supply? (There is a lot of poop in this book.)

He also discusses the impa...more
Kathryn
This was an interesting read, although the author does seem to be spruiking the benefits of cities and the inevitability that they will increase in size, given the modern technologies available to make them safe, foster development and make them more desirable places to be (and not necessarily something I agree with). "If we're going to survive as a planet with more than 6 billion people without destroying the complex balance of our natural ecosystems, the best way to do it is to crowd as many o...more
Wendy
I wouldn't have picked this one up if not for the Bookish reading challenge (for the "epidemic task"...yes, we're crazy like that), and for the most part found it fascinating, especially the first half. At its best, this book is a sort of non-fiction history/science mystery thriller, following Doctor John Snow and the Reverend Whitehead as they try to piece together the complex origins behind London's 1854 Cholera outbreak, in which hundreds of people died in the span of a few weeks. The smells...more
Christine
Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence, Pete fell off and who was left? Repeat...Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence...

I was really excited to read this book and it started out just as I imagined - through the dark streets and homes of Londoners falling victim to an invisible and deadly illness. He introduced some interesting descriptive accounts of mid-19th century London, with their "bottle collectors" of the time, but who actually collected and sold animal/human waste, pieces of fabric...more
Miranda
Can't put this one down. Nothing like a little bit of plague and pestilence to make one's day.

A very nicely written, thought-provoking book. Got me thinking as much about the manner in which we do science as about what the science tells us, or can tell us. A lot of thinking rolled into a tidy package, wrapped up in a rollicking good tale of a cholera epidemic. Satisfying as a read, on so many levels. I find myself revisiting often the thoughts I had while going through this lovely little book. A...more
Jennifer W
In 5th grade we had a speaker coming in and give us a real life historical mystery to solve. He gave us each a booklet with a map and told us that every few days, people would die from various locations on the map. There was a giant copy of the map posted in the hallway, which would be the master marked with red dots as people kicked the bucket. If we kept careful track of when and where people died, we could solve the mystery of the spreading of this disease. Not known as one for details, I qui...more
Petra
This turned into an interesting look at issues caused by the growth of cities. London, being one of the first big cities, was on the cusp of problems stemming from that growth and the accumulation of so many people in so little space. One of the problems: lack of a way of hygienically disposing of poop. It was everywhere in the days before sewers. The descriptions of Victorian London were appalling: poop in the backyard, in the cellars, in ditches, in cesspools right on the street. Not merely a...more
Jane
The Ghost Map is, in part, an account of a cholera epidemic that took place in London in 1854. I say in part, because the epidemic is really a springboard for a series of discussions. In a sense, this book is the history of an idea: that a disease could be waterborne.

Back in 1854, this idea was startling, and unacceptable to most of the medical and administrative establishment. Johnson does a good job of highlighting the work of two men, John Snow (who did a lot of the thinking that led to the u...more
Sara*
Sep 26, 2008 Sara* rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: history buffs, map lovers
Recommended to Sara* by: hunter college
Shelves: true
I really lucked out this semester in my Cities & Health course by getting a chance to read The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. The book, both a thrilling jaunt into the past and a terrifying look at the possibilities of the future, centers on 1854 London during the city's worst Cholera outbreak. The book follows a unorthodox Doctor, Dr. John Snow, and a man with his ear to the streets, Reverend Henry Whitehead, in the Golden Square neighborhood in Central London. The book chronicles the doctor'...more
Sarah
eh, this was okay as far as medical infectious disease books go. it got a little dry and repetitive towards the end, but it was interesting and informative for nearly the entire book.

i liked the way the author interspersed quotations from dickens and other authors of the time in addition to quotations from medical books/newspapers/other informational literature of the time.

cholera seems like a pretty nasty disease that i would never want to get, but it's such a simple one to avoid by not conta...more
Dana
After I finished reading the book, I gave a silent prayer to thank God that I live in the time and place that I do (early 21st century US). I have read a lot of books lately about sanitation, its history, the current status in undeveloped countries and possible methods of improvement. The Ghost Map is the story of 1850’s London, when raw sewage was being pumped directly into the Thames River and then pumped back out again to provide drinking water to millions of people. As one would expect, illn...more
Gwnhwyfer
"Ghost Map" : Take Two

When I initially read Steven Johnson's "Ghost map" a few years back, I was either young and impressionable or I skipped parts.

I'm betting on the latter.

In looking for something while trying out my library's eAudio selections (their non-fiction is poor), I decided to reread "Ghost map." The first half (and some of the conclusion) was as interesting as I remembered (as interesting as you can get when talking about disease and death) and I would recommend it. As other revie...more
Brack
A map of the carnage. A layout of the bodies, defining the organism via the footprints. Tracking a microscopic bacteria with only the tool of the mind. No bigfoot in this region, but ignorance, rumor, inuendo and prejudice abound. That is the surge you are up against. It is all speculation with the support of keen and disciplined observation. Take that Mr Bell and your theorum. Who can tell you that your observations are not subtly leading you by the nose. Truth has it’s own particular agenda. I...more
Jamilla Rice
I was surprised at how interesting a read it was. Who would have thought that cholera and the discovery of the waterborne origins of microbial epidemics would be so engrossing? Steven Johnson's writing is what definitely makes this book. I thought that I was pretty good at analogies/comparisons, but he trumps all others, especially with the following: "A virus can swap genes with other viruses willingly. Imagine a brunette waking up one morning with a shock of red hair, after working side by sid...more
Jackie "the Librarian"
London in the 1800s was utterly disgusting. You cram two million people and sundry livestock into one Victorian city, add stinky professions such as tanners and renderers, and then put them all on top of all the crap two million people produce, and no sewage system to put it in, it's going to stink. And stink powerfully.
Clearly, something had to be done. Unfortunately, the leaders of the city picked the wrong thing to do. They decided to clean up the city by funneling all the waste into the Tham...more
Regina
3.5 stars.

Interesting stuff. Compelling, shocking and heartbreaking. At the time of the Cholera outbreak, London's policy to deal with sewage actually caused and worsened the outbreak killing thousands and thousands of people. I cannot quite wrap my mind around the concept of cess pools in basements nor the concept that the dumping of sewage from the entire urban area into that same urban area's drinking water was considered to be an achievement by the city's planners. Descriptions of the manner...more
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Huntsville-Madiso...: Staff Pick - The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson 1 7 Sep 05, 2013 05:49PM  
Am I missing something here? 14 134 Mar 27, 2013 11:00PM  
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.

Steven Johnson is the author of the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good For You, and Mind Wide Open, as well as Emergence and Interface Culture. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently, outside.in—and writes for Time, Wi...more
More about Steven Johnson...
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation Everything Bad is Good for You Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software The Invention of Air

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“This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton's famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.” 10 likes
“How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline: the sociology of error.” 4 likes
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