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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

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3.90  ·  Rating details ·  37,703 ratings  ·  3,606 reviews
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. It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure—garbage removal, clean water, sewers—neces ...more
Hardcover, 299 pages
Published November 1st 2006 by Riverhead Books (first published October 19th 2006)
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Average rating 3.90  · 
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 ·  37,703 ratings  ·  3,606 reviews


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Start your review of The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Kirsti
Sep 07, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  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
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
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
Eric_W
Jan 14, 2009 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
Diane S ☔
Jan 06, 2014 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
Paul
Feb 23, 2020 rated it liked it
This is an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and of the work of John Snow who through his scientific investigations managed to establish that cholera was waterborne and that the source of this outbreak was the Broad Street pump. This was going against the scientific opinion of the time a miasmic theory which argued that air, small and conditions were responsible. The book covers a variety of areas: history, biography, detective work, epidemiology and scientific investigation. Johnso ...more
emma
who knew i'd find a nonfiction account of the epidemiological history of cholera more interesting than most YA fantasy??

this book was disgusting. it was also SO FUN. well, the first hundred or so pages were the funnest ever (five star level for real). then the next one hundred were like...eh. and the last fifty were "uhhh i think i'm just going to skip this i'm here for plagues and infectious disease not self-indulgent waxing romantic on the future of the city as a concept?????"

but still.

lot of
...more
Lynne
Dec 29, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks, history
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
Ashlie
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviews
Except for the feeling of nausea that accompanies the reading at times, this is a very interesting book about the cholera epidemic in 1854, before the existence of bacteriology/parasitology.

It is also the epic tale of John Snow who almost single handedly kept track of contamination pathways, fought against the miasma theory and the biased and unscientific approach of his peers, tried to locate and define the germ and still kept his hat on like a gentleman. Amazing true story, especially if you
...more
Jill Hutchinson
Dec 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-history
London was a cesspool in the 1854.....raw sewage ran into the Thames or was just thrown into pits in the back yards of tenement buildings. In that year, London had an outbreak of cholera which killed its victims in less than 24 hours. This extremely violent strain captured the attention of a physician, Dr. John Snow and a local curate, Rev. Whitehead...how were people catching this deadly disease? The common belief in the medical community was that of miasma...in other words an air borne disease ...more
Jim
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, at
...more
Trevor
Jul 20, 2009 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
...more
Dan Schiff
Mar 15, 2009 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
...more
Jamie
Aug 01, 2008 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
...more
Diane
Aug 25, 2012 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
...more
Jeanette
Apr 24, 2015 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
Megan Baxter
Aug 12, 2015 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
...more
Jonny
Cholera had been endemic in England for two decades when it hit the Golden Square neighbourhood of Soho, quite literally, like a bomb. The most virulent single outbreak of the disease in the country's history also provided the opportunity to understand the disease and apply preventative measures... if only medical science weren't so convinced that disease were a combination of class prejudice and smell.
This is the story of one man's struggle to push his theory forward, aided by a degree of local
...more
Jess
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I just finished “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson this morning. It’s about the cholera epidemic that broke out in 1850 in London from the Broad St well. Although and very unfortunately so many people died from this occurrence, it significantly transformed London and science. I.e.: Germ theory as opposed to the miasma theory. The author also boldly claims that Big Ben is not London’s most magnificent marvel, but rather that which lies below the city – the London sewerage system. I found it to be ...more
Laura Noggle
Mar 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020, history, nonfiction
We've come a long way ... and yet ... have we really?

“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.”
Cinzia DuBois
Apr 12, 2020 rated it liked it
I gave this book three stars purely for the degree of useful information accumulated in this work about the transmission of cholera in the nineteenth century. Sadly, that's the limit of which my review is positive.

For starts, Johnson isn't a great storyteller. The book is incredibly sterile and frequently unfocused. Johnson's narrative swerved manically between topics which he touched upon incredibly lightly, so lightly in fact that it was often confusing as to the relevancy of it.

He was also
...more
Suzanne
Jul 09, 2011 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
...more
Cynda
In the The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Johnson has written a history with a number of check marks.

Accessibility? Check
Complete Story? Check.
Argument Well Presented? Check.
Present New Insight? Check.
Present Significance to Us/Contemporaries. Big Check.
Primary Sources? Check. Johnson used committee reports generated in 1850s, various writings of Dr John Snow who realized the water coming from the Broad Street
...more
Wendy
Feb 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Petra
Apr 23, 2010 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
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
Sandi
Nov 15, 2008 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
...more
Phyllis
Dec 27, 2014 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
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Play Book Tag: The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson - 5 stars 3 20 Jul 16, 2019 07:36PM  
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, 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.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California,
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