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

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
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Apr 17, 08

Read in April, 2008

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; and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, an Oxford-educated young man whose Anglican calling did nothing to abate his fondness for London taverns.

The book begins with a description of London as a city of scavengers: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers and shoremen. Against this backdrop of vile and ghastly smells, and in the face of a horrifying epidemic, Snow posited the then radical theory that cholera was spread through contaminated water rather than through miasma, or smells in the air. Against considerable resistance from the medical and bureaucratic establishment, Snow persisted and, with hard work and groundbreaking research, helped to bring about a fundamental change in our understanding of disease and its spread. Johnson weaves in overlapping ideas about the growth of civilization, the organization of cities, and evolution to thrilling effect.
This is a multifaceted book incorporating a detective story, an introduction to statistics (math), and a personal history. The Ghost Map is a book that, like the work of Jared Diamond, presents both vivid history and a powerful and provocative explanation of what it means for the world we live in. Unlike Jared Diamond however, Steve Johnson does not load the facts to reach the objective that Diamond would have us believe. From Snow's discovery of patient zero to Johnson's compelling argument for and celebration of cities, this makes for an illuminating and satisfying read. It is not a book for the squeamish however; a vivid description of death from cholera is graphically and terrifyingly detailed.
As interesting as the main body of the book is, Johnson ends with an Epilogue, which I believe was probably written well after he finished the telling of Dr. Snow’s story. If, for no other reason, read that chapter, but don’t expect to sleep well again. And when you read a newspaper article about a poultry worker dying in Thailand, think about what would happen if H5N1 were to undergo a single transgenic shift. Now, try to go back to sleep.
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