on October 29, 2006
This is surprisingly, one fascinating and important read that spins the historical reality of pathogenic disease with a well crafted story regarding the plight of a society facing a treacherous epidemic. Combining an in-depth view regarding the indefatigable energy and brilliance of Dr. John Snow in his quest to solve the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the history of London, with the history of epidemic plagues, `The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic- And How it Changed Cities, Science, and The Modern World' provided me with one page-turning, gripping historical tale that also provided further insight into the plight free societies face today in lieu of the possabilities of biological or chemical attacks on innocent people.
When I was recommended to read Steven Johnson's book, it was not for the sake of diving into a good read, but rather to `browse' through it for further insight on the origins of water contamination and how, thru these origins, terrorist could look at contamination for horrific purposes. As a writer with an interest in international affairs, and a tendency to use fiction storytelling to share my views, I opened Steven Johnson's book and within pages was completely hooked on this extraordinarily written, well researched tell all of the London epidemic of cholera that killed so many lives.
With reflection on how science viewed pathogenic outbreaks during the midpoint of the 19th Century, it was startling to find that there really existed a classification system that gave all sorts of bizarre reasons why a disease would spread, including a weight based upon wealth and financial disposition! We sure have come a long way . . . or have we? I guess we can still look at Africa with great outrage and clearly say we're back in London during 1854! And this folks is important: in Johnson's attempt to share the history of the past, what he really is doing is talking about the immediate needs of to protect the most impoverished with assistance to medical treatment, and ongoing diligence to understand the nature of disease and how wide-spread health concerns effect not only those who are directly in contact with a pathogenic, but equally as important: how societies infrastructure's essentially crumble when epidemic disease spreads.
Writing with such an easy style that readers will not get lost, Johnson takes us on a fascinating trip with Dr. John Snow; clearly one of the scientific pioneers whose actions have saved the lives of untold people. Take your time and sit back with `The Ghost Map': it may bring you a bit closer to acting in a socially responsible way that connects all of us a bit further. It may even cause you to open your wallet and send a few much needed dollars to health care organizations attempting to follow the lead of Dr. Snow: determining pathogenic causes and feverishly attempting to help those in need. Steven Johnson's `The Ghost Map' is simply brilliant.
on February 28, 2007
The Ghost Map uses the Cholera outbreak in London in 1854 to weave together a compelling story of science, demographics and superstition. Rather than just engaging in a straightforward narrative about the outbreak, Johnson dives into a truly interesting analysis of the fear with which people viewed city living in the 1850s. Back then, nobody knew if a city of 2 million people, like London, would simply crumble under its own social weight. He also digs deeply into the science and medicine of the time (or lack thereof) and how it treated an outbreak like 1854's. In addition, he lays out the story of John Snow doing true scientific work, finding the real cause of the outbreak, winning some important converts, failing to win others, but ultimately saving many lives.
What makes the book so good is the way it places you into the mind of someone living in London in 1854 and making you understand why it was so hard for them to accept the true cause of the disease when it seems so obvious to us today. That experience makes a thoughtful reader wonder what things we take for granted today that will seem so obviously wrong in 150 years.
The book stays at four stars, not five, for several reasons. First off, the actual namesake of the book, The Ghost Map, is little more than a tacked-on afterthought at the conclusion of the book. It's interesting, but more of a post-script than anything else, and certainly not appropriate as the title of the book - somebody must have thought it sounded like it would sell books. No worries though, the book it sells is a good one.
Also, Johnson goes on some odd tangents at the end of the book talking about city life and trying to tie internet technology back to the work Snow did. It's a reach and not terribly relevant. I get the feeling it was fun for Johnson to write his pet theories, but they don't really fit here and probably could have been the basis of an interesting book on their own.
All in all, this one has some flaws, but is a thought-provoking an interesting book the takes your mind back 150 years and gives you a fresh perspective. Well worth reading.
The Ghost Map is an engrossing tale of medical detection and discovery. In 1854 a London neighborhood was suddenly plunged into a massive cholera epidemic. The actual disease was awful enough, but ignorance added to the fear felt by Londoners, because no one understood the true method by which cholera spread from one victim to another. Prevailing medical opinion held that cholera, like nearly all other diseases, was spread through miasmas, bad air and bad smells.
Two men, Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead, began to suspect that the true culprit was water from the neighborhood pump and conducted an assiduous investigation that finally proved them right. Although most doctors and scientists were reluctant to discard the miasma theory, eventually the weight of the evidence convinced them that Snow and Whitehead were correct.
Like all good histories, The Ghost Map branches from the main story to trace the many different ways in which Snow and Whitehead's investigations helped lead to the development of modern cities. I especially enjoyed the final chapters and epilogue, in which Johnson identifies many ways in which our modern mega-cities are both more vulnerable (yet thanks to technology and communications safer and better able to cope with threats as well) than was London in 1854.
The Ghost Map is an engrossing read, well written, scholarly, yet dramatic too. It will appeal to historians and fans of medical detection alike.
on December 18, 2006
As I've indicated in my header for this review, I think parts of this book are great but parts are frustrating. I debated between three and four stars, 3.5 is about what I feel would be just.
Great: the background on Victorian sanitation and the human ecology that grew up about this sanitation (or lack thereof). For example, I bet you didn't know there was a whole occupation devoted to the collection of "pure" (dog poo) used in the tanning process. The details of the spread of cholera in the outbreak traced by Dr. Snow are fascinating, as is the dissection of the cult of miasma. The varnished cover, with a ghostly map (but it's not *the ghost map*) appearing at the right angle is very cool.
Not so great: This is a book called "The Ghost Map". It could use a great deal more cartography. The wonderful cover to the despite, there's no reproduction that I could see of the eponymous ghost map in the book.
The book could also have used a good editor, or at least some more self-editing on the part of Mr. Johnson. Coverage of Victorian sanitation, Dr. Snow, and the cholera outbreak of 1854 is fascinating every icky step of the way. But when Johnson heads out of the limits of his tale and heads into Jane Jacobs territory, his chapters begin to sound like lightly reworked Wired articles. Johnson's thoughts on global warming, for example, really do not belong in this book. A more disciplined approach to narrative could have produced a great and classic title. Alas, this book is not.
on July 7, 2013
The three tenets of Pop Non Fiction:
1. Find an event that is historically underappreciated, exciting, and can be described with a vague but interesting title (Example: "The Graves Are Walking" by John Kelly)
2. Hyperbolic sub-title describing this event in grandiose terms (Example: subtitle of a "Operation Mincemeat" by Ben Macintyre is "How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.")
3. Explain how aftershocks of this event helped shape the modern world (Example: "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" describes the Great Khan as being the godfather of the Enlightenment - by outlawing torture, granted freedom of religion, and ending existing autocratic power structures - even while being a merciless homicidal warlord).
"The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World" fulfills all three of these tenets. Steven Johnson is clearly a smart guy, but in my opinion he spends too much time trying to tie different stories to the story of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak, and "The Ghost Map" suffers for it. Following the aforementioned tenets, he spends way too much time fulfilling tenet 3 rather than tenet 1.
I was very excited to read this book. In 1854 London there was a ferocious outbreak of cholera, that may have lasted longer if not for the actions of doctor John Snow to limit access to the cholera-infected well. I've been familiar with the work of John Snow since I was a kid and was interested to learn more in depth about the environment he grew up in, the conditions of London at the time, and the events of the outbreak itself. At first, Johnson did a great job of setting the stage. After the first couple chapters, you really feel like you know London (and SoHo) at the time. You know what it smells like, what people did, what the London Mayor's office thought about the environment. Johnson does a fine job describing the squalid conditions of the day, and how the prevailing beliefs in the medical profession at the time contributed to continued cholera epidemics. Apparently, mixing sewage and drinking water was not a good idea. Who knew?
However, if you are looking for a book like "The Great Influenza" or "The Great Mortality" that will go into great detail about a dangerous plague and the situation around it, this is not the book for you. After researching the topic after reading "The Ghost Map" I discovered the outbreak killed only 616 people and lasted just over 2 weeks. Am I complaining that only 616 people died? Of course not. I'm simply bringing up the fact that with bigger outbreaks there are far more stories to tell. Personally, I am attracted to books on epidemics and plagues to learn about the situations that create them, how people react to them, who survives them, and the stories those survivors tell. "The Ghost Map" is short on those details, and rather long on details about urban planning.
While we are here, I have to take issue with the sub-title. This is not London's most terrifying epidemic. From cholera alone: 6,000 people died in 1832 London and over 14,000 in 1849 - with 20,000 and 50,000 as the nationwide death tolls. And in the Great Plague of 1665? Over 100,000 dead Londoners (Source: "The Great Plague Of 1665," The National Archive. Retrieved 7/7/2013). Not even mentioning the Black Death. The very thing that made this outbreak understandable (it was confined to Broad Street Pump area) is what drained it of it's terror.
I digress. Because it is such a small outbreak, Johnson spends a bunch of pages following rabbits down holes. You wouldn't think that a story detailing cholera in the 19th Century would have extended interludes on global warming, and Michael Bloomberg's reforms in 21st century New York City. But "The Ghost Map" does. I don't know if Johnson was trying to fill pages or actually wanted to tell a story about city design and planning, but he ended up writing a lot about things that don't have to do with cholera.
So I was very pleased by the parts that were about the outbreak, or John Snow (hero, polymath, anesthesiologist, epidemiologist, teetotaler), or even Victorian London's waste management systems. The frequent jumps to the present and the attempts to tie all logical urban planning to this one event bored me and left me frustrated. That's what I think you should know about the book before picking it up - and please don't believe the subtitle.
In a dramatic, harrowing and heroic narrative, Johnson recreates the London of 1854 in all its teeming modernity and pestilential filth. Viewing the devastating cholera epidemic of that summer as a pivotal point in the history of the modern city, Johnson describes a city on the verge of imploding from its own success.
Population had doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2.5 million. The scavengers alone numbered 100,000 and without them the city would have soon succumbed to its own filth. Busy in their niches, the pure-finders, mud-larks, bone pickers, dredger men, bunters, toshers and others recycled the city's waste, eking out a living.
The night-soil men cleaned out the cesspools and carted the waste to farms. But as the city sprawled, their journey grew longer and more expensive. Property owners, particularly landlords, chose to let it accumulate in the cellars rather than pay to have it carted away. The modern and celebrated sewers and the sanitary and popular water closet just made things worse, flushing raw sewage into the Thames.
On a night late in August an infant came down with cholera. How she got it no one knows, but the microbe made its way from the open cesspool below the family's house into the Broad Street water supply - a particularly clean and envied pump that attracted users from all over the neighborhood. In the next days whole families died with terrifying swiftness.
Johnson imagines their anguish and fear and the mental outlook of people who knew they could wake healthy in the morning and be dead by nightfall. The bravery of a young clergyman, Henry Whitehead, was not only kind but important. It was his neighborhood and he visited and nursed the sick, making his way from one overcrowded, foul-smelling room to the next. His open-mindedness and powers of observation would prove to be no small thing.
In graphic detail Johnson describes the course of cholera and its evolution, showing how human cities created a flourishing haven for this opportunistic microbe, allowing it to spread so fast it had no need to keep its host alive.
Meanwhile the prevailing belief - among scientists as well as the population at large - was that disease was caused by miasma - foul smelling air. Johnson explores this conviction from the point of view of our own evolution, showing how, once again, city living confounded the Pleistocene brain.
But one man, physician John Snow, bucked conventional thinking. A brilliant man from a working class background, he had already attained stature in the burgeoning field of anesthesia. His observations of previous epidemics led him to suspect the water supply. Again, Johnson shows how various factors, among them Snow's origins and his home in the Broad Street neighborhood, contributed to his success. Although there was considerable resistance from city officials and the medical establishment, the city agreed to shut down the Broad Street pump. The epidemic ended.
But it had been winding down anyway. And Whitehead, who had himself drunk from the Broad Street pump, was one of Snow's staunchest critics. But Whitehead continued to gather data and help Snow map the disease. In fact, it was he who discovered the baby was the first case. On questioning the mother the last of his doubts about Snow's theories disappeared and the resultant maps convinced the city officials as well, leading to the first real municipal sewer system.
Johnson's retelling of this extraordinary story encompasses the actual movements of neighborhood individuals - most of them victims - as well as the quack cures, class prejudices, typical living conditions, evolution, and chance involved in a story that revolutionized city living.
Johnson, author of "Everything Bad Is Good for You" and "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life," has a nimble and curious mind, which combines well with his lively writing style to show the causal connections, serendipities and ironies which often govern human civilization.
His conclusion, an epilogue in celebration of cities, offsets his first chapter. Far from destroying human life through overcrowding, filth and poverty, cities provide a better way of living - education, work, culture, etc - and help preserve the earth from our heavy footsteps. The epilogue, with its sudden leap into the present and future, is a bit jarring, but whether you agree with him or not Johnson's ideas are thought provoking.
This is a stirring and fascinating tale with lots of illuminating and engrossing digressions.
-- Portsmouth Herald
on May 13, 2007
Steven Johnson is clearly smart and eclectic. I learned a lot from reading this book. John Snow and Henry Whitehead are fascinating. I didn't know the evolutionary implications of alcohol as an anti-microbial. (The ability to metabolize alcohol would have been an evolutionary advantage for early city dwellers.)
Unfortunately, the editing of this book was incompetent. You will often experience deja vu, as an idea on one page is repeated two pages later, or sometimes even in the next sentence. The book reads as if a student was stretching a term paper intended for a not-very-bright teacher. I was tempted to read with a red pen in hand.
It would have been a much stronger book at half the length.
on February 6, 2007
Healthcare epidemiology is my primary area of work. I thought I knew a fair bit about the Broad Street Pump outbreak, but I learned much more. Johnson makes the information very accessible for the average reader, yet I no real quibbles with the scientific accuracy of what he said (a few times I started to wish he was more precise, but then realized that what he said was accurate enough, and being more precise would mean pages of background information that wouldn't add anything). Johnson also does a superb job of putting Snow's accomplishments into a much larger context. I'm recommending it to everyone I work with.
In the wake of Dava Sobel's _Longitude_, we've seen a lot of books about how [something] "Changed/Made/Shaped the World." I've read a good many of these books, and liked most of them. But _The Ghost Map_ is a standout.
The reason is that Johnson has assembled, not simply a collection of facts, but a *story*. Certainly, the history of Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead is fascinating in itself. Johnson has done a lot of meticulous research, and his writing is vivid--sometimes brutally so. As with many of these books, he bulks out the chronological narrative with discursions into related topics.
But then he does something that most other authors haven't done: he brings the discursions and the central story together into a single thematic whole. Johnson makes the case that the real significance of Snow and Whitehead's actions was that they marked the emergence of science and rationalism over ignorance and superstition. The defeat of the old (and tenaciously defended) "miasma" theory of disease was a watershed moment. Modern cities, Johnson argues, can exist--and provide immense benefits--only because of this sea-change in human thinking.
Now, if you disagree with this conclusion, you'll probably dislike _The Ghost Map_. Nonetheless, in tying his threads into a coherent package, Johnson has gone the extra step that most similar books have skipped. The books isn't just historical/scientific facts; it's an argument, a foreceful defense of reason and civism. Snow and Whitehead didn't cause the change that the book's subtitle refers to, but their presence illuminates a crucial moment in that process, and Steven Johnson deserves extra credit for pointing it out.
on April 6, 2007
Steven Johnson is a fine writer, and, most damnable in this reader's opinion, he knows it too. He puts his Roget's to heavy use, every verb is active, and he probably went cross-eyed from all that research he waded through to complete this book. Johnson carries out a rather redundant variation-on-a-theme style of narrative, seemingly simply to build each chapter into a nice, authoritative size. Certainly not from the less-is-more school of description.
That said, I did get a nice feel for the fetid, foul, fusty, gamy, infested, mephitic, musty, nasty, nauseating, noisome, noxious, offensive, pestilential, poisonous, polluted, putrid, rancid, rank, reeking, rotten, smelly, stenchful, stinking, tainted, vile, loathsome, putrescent, fumescent, malodorous, repugnant, repulsive, revolting, yecchy city that London had become in 1854, sprawled too big for its waste products and ripe for an epidemic. And the character of John Snow (*my hero!*) comes off admirably, as he battles singlehandedly the wrongheaded public health figures of the day and brings them tottering down into their own smelly soup.
That the epidemic was begun by a single sick baby is indeed tragic. That the theories of the scientific community centered around illness coming from bad smells and "tainted" air is amazing. And when all is said (and said and said) and done, something was actually learned from it all and put to good use is ultimately redemptive.