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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most…
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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It… (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Steven Johnson (Author)

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3,5441582,534 (3.95)2 / 288
"An account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London--and an exploration of how Dr. John Snow's solution revolutionized the way we think about disease in cities. In the summer of 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak seized London just as it was emerging as a modern city: more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that's outdated as soon as it's updated. Author Johnson chronicles Snow's day-by-day efforts as he risked his own life to prove how the epidemic was being spread. When he created the map that traced the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn't just solve a pressing medical riddle--he established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.--From publisher description."--From source other than the Library of Congress… (more)
Member:shabay3
Title:The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Authors:Steven Johnson (Author)
Info:Riverhead Books (2007), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages
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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 by Steven Johnson (2006)

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English (155)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (1)  All languages (158)
Showing 1-5 of 155 (next | show all)
This book continues my reading of epidemics in history and honestly, even if I wasn't doing this low-key reading project I would still have read the book because I have been eyeing it for a long time. And I think that level of anticipation and the less than awesome reading experience towards the end of the book factors into my overall rating.

But first - the good stuff. Johnson writes in an engaging way, giving you information in an entertaining way, but not snarky or trying to hard to be funny. He also kept the narrative characters to a small number, so as not to overwhelm the reader and so that we also get enough different perspectives to see the epidemics from different angles. The big controversary was the miasma theory vs. local source of infection; germ theory was a good 30 years in the future, yet the seeds of this knowledge was sowed here. The professionalism and dedication of Dr. John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead was amazing considering one was an amateur citizen scientist and the other had a thriving business in the new and booming science of anethesia. This was a case of those curious folks leaving their lane of expertise to discover the cause and help in a time of need. The reluctant partnership turned deep friendship was very interesting to read and kept my attention while my brain worked through the mid-1800s politics and all that science.

So why only 3 stars? That ending chapter. Long winded (when the rest of the book was tightly edited to be highly readable and enjoyable). Repetitive. Just a word salad on the page. Also, there is a lot of assertions on the future of modern cities based on public health policy, and can I just say I laughed so hard - I mean we see how well the US population is dealing with public health restrictions and mandates with COVID-19. Johnson has way too much faith in people's adherence to science-based guidelines. Then there was the constant refrain of cities and technology as the be-all and end-all solutions to looming problems such as overpopulation and climate change.

My advice - read this book from the beginning to the conclusion and then completely skip the epilogue. ( )
  teastitchread | Aug 16, 2020 |
3.75 stars

In the mid-19th century, London was hit (a couple of times, a few years apart) by a cholera epidemic. It hit quickly and in a small area within London. While many went with the prevailing theory of miasma (something in the air) of spreading it, Dr. John Snow did additional research and found that it was something in the water. He was able to convince one doubter, a reverend who knew and visited many of the sick. Together, they continued to promote their theory.

I really liked this investigation and the medical history in this book. There is an additional chapter or two at the end that talks more about cities (I think it’s mentioned in the extended version of the title), and the pros (environmental – yup) and cons (spread of epidemics/pandemics) of having such a huge majority of the world’s population living in cities. This was the part that wasn’t quite as interesting to me and where I took off a quarter star. ( )
  LibraryCin | Aug 3, 2020 |
An engaging account, mostly about the investigation of John Snow, but giving enough background that the social environment of the time is made clear. As he reaches his conclusion, the role of Henry Whitehead becomes more clear.

The last of the book applies the studies to our day. What can we learn? What challenges do we face? How applicable are the tools they used to us? What additional tools do we have?
( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
This book delves—in a pop-scientific way—into the 1850s cholera outbreak in London, England. This was at a time when cholera wasn't in the medical books and thoughts about miasma were flounced about by so-called medical professionals.

Johnson is very good at providing ample background information to whatever happens during this book, for example, the following two paragraphs:

Water closets were a tremendous breakthrough as far as quality of life was concerned, but they had a disastrous effect on the city’s sewage problem. Without a functioning sewer system to connect to, most WCs simply flushed their contents into existing cesspools, greatly increasing their tendency to overflow. According to one estimate, the average London household used 160 gallons of water a day in 1850. By 1856, thanks to the runaway success of the water closet, they were using 244 gallons.

But the single most important factor driving London’s waste-removal crisis was a matter of simple demography: the number of people generating waste had almost tripled in the space of fifty years. In the 1851 census, London had a population of 2.4 million people, making it the most populous city on the planet, up from around a million at the turn of the century. Even with a modern civic infrastructure, that kind of explosive growth is difficult to manage. But without infrastructure, two million people suddenly forced to share ninety square miles of space wasn’t just a disaster waiting to happen—it was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat. Five hundred years after the fact, London was slowly re-creating the horrific demise of Richard the Raker: it was drowning in its own filth.

London's population exploded in size and nearly in crises; finding housing for everyone is one thing, but to try and keep sickness away proved impossible, especially when one considers that words from people who belonged to clerical professions carried the most heft where it came to matters medical (and scientific).

Descriptions of how cases of cholera broke out are detailed:

All that history would have weighed like a nightmare on Mr. G, as his condition worsened on Thursday. He may have begun vomiting during the night and most likely experienced muscle spasms and sharp abdominal pains. At a certain point, he would have been overtaken by a crushing thirst.

But the experience was largely dominated by one hideous process: vast quantities of water being evacuated from his bowels, strangely absent of smell and color, harboring only tiny white particles. Clinicians of the day dubbed this “rice-water stool.” Once you began emitting rice-water stools, odds were you’d be dead in a matter of hours. Mr. G would have been terribly aware of his fate, even as he battled the physical agony of the disease. One of cholera’s distinctive curses is that its sufferers remain mentally alert until the very last stages of the disease, fully conscious both of the pain that the disease has brought them and the sudden, shocking contraction of their life expectancy.

The Times had described this horrifying condition several years before in a long feature on the disease: “While the mechanism of life is suddenly arrested, the body emptied by a few rapid gushes of its serum, and reduced to a damp, dead…mass, the mind within remains untouched and clear,—shining strangely through the glazed eyes, with light unquenched and vivid,—a spirit, looking out in terror from a corpse.”

By Friday, Mr. G’s pulse would have been barely detectable, and a rough mask of blue, leathery skin would have covered his face. His condition would have matched this description of William Sproat from 1831: “countenance quite shrunk, eyes sunk, lips dark blue, as well as the skin of the lower extremities; the nails…livid.” Most of this is, to a certain extent, conjecture.

But one thing we know for certain: at one p.m. on Friday, as baby Lewis suffered quietly in the room next door, Mr. G’s heart stopped beating, barely twenty-four hours after showing the first symptoms of cholera. Within a few hours, another dozen Soho residents were dead.

This book almost turns into a complete hagiography where John Snow is concerned. He is the main character in this non-fiction book, which is nearly written in the way that a modern-day crime novel is: Snow's from a poor background, studied hard, worked his way up, and could have lived a relatively cozy existence as the man who started out modern-day anesthesiology. John Snow didn't do that.

Instead, he started looking into what was killing thousands of people and what the source of it could be, much like any modern-day forensic investigation could ramble along.

The idea of microscopic germs spreading disease would have been about as plausible as the existence of fairies to most practicing doctors of the day. And as Surgeon-in-Chief G. B. Childs’ letter-writing campaign to the Times suggested, laudanum was regularly prescribed for almost any ailment. The Victorian medical refrain was, essentially: Take a few hits of opium and call me in the morning.

This book is an easy read. I'm not one for pop-scientific books with oodles of fact, being nerdy in the extreme, but in spite of its monograph value, this book won me over, mainly through Johnson's style and well-written prose.

This is an analyst's book. It's divided into clear chapters and goes finely into details. There's not much flair over Johnson's writing, in a good way, which is apt, considering his near-dry British way of going over things; he walks the line between terse humour and in-depth medical detail in commendable ways. ( )
  pivic | Mar 21, 2020 |
The story was great. You might be thinking, "I don't know about reading this. I've heard tons of 10 and 30 minute versions of this story. Is an 8 hour version worth it?" It is.

The last 20% of the book is the conclusion and it gets a bit off-topic. I don't think you'll really miss out on anything if you choose to skip it. There are good points made and discussed but if you're just here for the Ghost Map story then don't worry about it. ( )
  Jerry.Yoakum | Feb 20, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 155 (next | show all)
To nonfiction book writers: if you want your book to sell, make huge, dramatic claims with your title and/or subtitle. If you want your book to be a bestseller, you actually have to fulfill those claims. Steven Johnson has done both, again and again.
 

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Gibson, BenjaminCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
—Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"
Dedication
For the women in my life:

My mother and sisters, for their amazing work
on the front lines of public health

Alexa, for the gift of Henry Whitehead

and Mame, for introducing me to London so many years ago . . .
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It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers.
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"An account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London--and an exploration of how Dr. John Snow's solution revolutionized the way we think about disease in cities. In the summer of 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak seized London just as it was emerging as a modern city: more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that's outdated as soon as it's updated. Author Johnson chronicles Snow's day-by-day efforts as he risked his own life to prove how the epidemic was being spread. When he created the map that traced the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn't just solve a pressing medical riddle--he established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.--From publisher description."--From source other than the Library of Congress

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From Amazon: 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-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.
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