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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

3.91  ·  Rating Details ·  25,363 Ratings  ·  2,429 Reviews
Look out for Johnson’s new book, Wonderland, on sale November 15, 2016.

A National Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year

From Steven Johnson, the dynamic thinker routinely compared to James Gleick, Dava Sobel, and Malcolm Gladwell, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow.
Hardcover, 299 pages
Published October 19th 2006 by Riverhead Hardcover
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Sep 07, 2008 Kirsti rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history/psychology buffs
Shelves: nonfiction, history
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
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
Diane S ☔
Mar 25, 2016 Diane S ☔ rated it liked it
3.5 Had seen the PBS special on Snow and his discovery during the cholera epidemic a few months back and this added more detail to that show. Interesting theories abounded, the miasma theory which was a theory almost all favored. How they did so much with so little. Took hard work without all our modern scientific equipment. Snow dedicated his life to the sciences, what he accomplished was nothing short of astonishing. Loved all the extraneous information, how tea helped with the lessening of ce ...more
Mar 27, 2010 Eric_W rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Jul 24, 2008 Lynne rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, audiobooks
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
I finally got my copy of this, but I also got an ebook copy & see that it has some maps. They're OK, but I didn't really miss them. He describes things well enough that an audio book is fine. In fact, his descriptions of life at the time are fantastic. The setup is a bit long, but it has to be. It's hard to imagine people living in those conditions (drinking out of open sewers!) with so little understanding of disease. It's incredible how far our common knowledge has come.

Well, in some cases
Jul 20, 2009 Trevor rated it really liked it
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
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
Dan Schiff
Apr 14, 2009 Dan Schiff rated it liked it
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
Megan Baxter
Aug 12, 2015 Megan Baxter rated it really liked it
In a way, it's amazing it took me this long to get to this book. My husband and one of my best friends had both read and really enjoyed it. It's about cholera in England, and I have that weird sort of interest that comes from having played a roleplaying game in which my teenage vampire slayer and her cohorts in the Royal Magisterial Corps were tracking a vampire who had been possessed by a cholera spirit. Plus, it's history.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in G
Aug 01, 2008 Jamie rated it it was amazing
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
May 19, 2015 Jeanette rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a thorough detailing of the 1854 London Broad Street Cholera epidemic. The beginning was a bit too authoritarian and preachy, but the rest of the book was 5 star. The day by day progression of Whitehead, and John Snow in their respective fields working to tract an epidemiology was, to me, enthralling. The miasma theory being so completely embedded within worldview, Victorian science and culture- plus the speed of the bacterium equaled a nearly impossible task in overcoming the London and ...more
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
Jan 08, 2016 Phyllis rated it really liked it
1854 London, overcrowded with people, industry, with the lack of a good water supply and sewage disposal. Just the right ingredients for a cholera epidemic. This epidemic (one of the most deadly in London) brought together two unlikely people, a doctor and a minister who worked together to solve the mystery of where the epidemic started. Ultimately it led to the discovery that cholera was spread by contaminated water. In the following years London changed its practice of sewage disposal and wate ...more
Oct 17, 2012 Diane rated it it was amazing
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
Apr 17, 2008 Croaker rated it really liked it
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
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
Nov 23, 2011 Jane rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
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
Nov 11, 2007 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2007
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
Feb 27, 2009 Sandi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2009
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
Sep 08, 2014 Kelly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I think the only slightly disappointing thing about this book was that I'd already read a really good article on the topic, and so I found that I knew more of the story than I thought I did. But that's not the book's fault. Fascinating stuff.
Aug 07, 2012 Petra rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jun 02, 2014 Suzanne rated it really liked it
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
Apr 16, 2009 Miranda rated it really liked it
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
Oct 20, 2016 Melora rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science-ish

My second reading of this, and, as I did in 2012, I enjoyed it very much! It may sound sort of gruesome, what with cholera and all -- okay, it is a little gruesome -- but Johnson's focus really isn't on the graphic details of death by cholera, but, rather, on what it took for the means of disease transmission to be discovered and prevented, on how scientific thought and cultural trends interact, on urban planning, etc. The horrific suffering is noted, and Johnson, in describing the progress of t
Jun 19, 2014 Dana rated it really liked it
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
May 18, 2013 Rebecca rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, pop-science
I vaguely knew the story of how removing a pump handle stopped a cholera epidemic, but this book goes into a fascinating level of detail.

Cholera was one of the big terrifying diseases of the 1800s—as the author notes, you just had to live with the knowledge that, no matter how healthy you were, at any point you (and your entire family) could be wiped out in a day and a half and no one knew how to stop or prevent it. Cholera moves shockingly fast by basically causing the body to expell all of its
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Science and Inquiry: * June 2015 - Ghost Map 13 95 Jul 20, 2015 12:17PM  
Madison Mega-Mara...: #20 - The Ghost Map 1 1 May 05, 2015 05:14PM  
Huntsville-Madiso...: Staff Pick - The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson 1 10 Sep 06, 2013 02:49AM  
Am I missing something here? 14 159 Mar 28, 2013 07:00AM  
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of ten books, including Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
The founder of a variety of influential websites, he is the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California, and Brooklyn, New York, with his w
More about Steven Johnson...

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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.” 20 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.” 7 likes
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