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The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map (original 2006; edition 2006)

by Steven Johnson

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2,5101252,418 (3.94)2 / 217
Title:The Ghost Map
Authors:Steven Johnson
Info:Riverhead, (2006), , softcover, 300 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:history, medicine, science, London, cholera

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The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (2006)

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The Ghost Map tells the story of London's worst cholera epidemic and the men who worked to identify the true cause of that disease's contraction and spread. Steven Johnson described the fear and dread widespread in London as this disease devastated families in the Soho section of the city. However, I felt like the book never really established that feeling as strongly as it could have. The story of how John Snow and Henry Whitehead collaborated to use maps, anecdotal evidence, and scientific research to demonstrate that cholera was water-based and not the result of miasma was very interesting, particularly as they challenged the medical establishment of the mid-19th century.

I got the sense this book could almost have been the product of a dissertation as the final chapter explored the 21st century implications and connections to the Ghost Map. Johnson made a lot of interesting points, but I didn't really feel like his conclusion connected to the historical story as well as I would have liked. It's a good book, but probably not one that I'd pick up and read again. ( )
  mfedore | Jan 17, 2015 |
I scarcely know where to begin in Ghost Maps
It is truly a multidimensional book.
I'll stay with my original reason for reading and highlight medical aspects.

It's summer 1854 and the site is London.
We have an emerging metropolis with a population over two million and our infrastructure standards are
are Elizabethan.
Waste management is nil and water is sewage polluted.
An epidemic ensues and 10% of the population is dead in 7 days.
The situation was terrifying.
There was scientific confusion.
The pathogen later was identified as a comma shaped bacterium and named vibrio cholerae

The miasma theory held that diseases such as cholera, chlamydia or the Black Death were caused by a miasma (Μίασμα, ancient Greek: "pollution"), a noxious form of "bad air"
The theory held that the origin of epidemics was due to a miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter."

Enter Dr John Snow
"John Snow (15 March 1813 – 16 June 1858) was an English physician and a leader in the adoption of anaesthesia and medical hygiene.
He is considered one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, in part because of his work in tracing the source of the cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854."

Dr John Snow expounded a partially correct theory that cholera was spread through water.

By tireless effort of testing water and talking to local residents (with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead), he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street.

The ghost maps that they assembled were dot maps used to illustrate the cluster of cholera cases around the pump.
Deaths dots or dashes highlighted the Broad Street pump.

Throughout the read, we meet city residents, the doctors chasing the disease, the medical detective Rev Henry Whitehead and the pathogen itself....
Finally we see how this epidemic initiated profound changes in science, in city managment and modern society in general.

I found Steven Johnson (the author) to be an intriguing thinker.
The scope of his research is impressive and Alan Sklar did an fine job of narration.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ( )
  pennsylady | Jan 14, 2015 |
Ghost Map is a very well researched, well written account of the events that took place during the 1850's London Cholera outbreak. Mr. Johnson does a great job of presenting the realities of life and death in this time period in a way that, while bleak and disgusting at times, brings the reader into his story and participate as an observer as these events unfold. It's not a pleasant book, but it is very informative and a lot of what takes place had such a huge impact on the future of society as we know it that this is also a very important book.

Kansas State University has selected this book as their common read for the 2014-2015 school year and I'm interested in seeing how much involvement we get from the students on this one. There is a lot of potential to work topics from the book into Chemistry or Biology curricula and especially into the Public Health areas on campu as well as Sociology, Urban Planning and many other areas. ( )
  StefanY | Jul 1, 2014 |
I wanted this book to be a history book and it started out that way. The Ghost Map tells the tale of the Cholera Epidemic of 1854 and is a fascinating story of science and sleuth. But then author Steven Johnson kept going down these paths--paths of excruciating detail about Victorian London and how crowded it was and how much it stunk and how filthy it was. I wondered all the synonyms that Johnson used for excrement. (A lot!) It all seemed too much. I kept wanting it to get back to the story's mystery and how it was solved.

And then, when I reached the end, I realized that that WAS the story--the birth of the modern city and all the perils that it entailed and how we are still learning how to live in large, metropolitan areas together as we continue to move from rural areas. I guess next time I need to pay more attention to the sub-title.

The last chapter was really an informative one as Johnson explains the factors that affect modern urbanization and whether, in his opinion, we can survive them. I listened to this book on Audible, and now I wish I had that last chapter in print, so I could take notes. He's got some really good stuff in there. And I'd like to go back and review some of those very detailed sections that I thought were dragging the story and turned out to be the data points to Johnson's main thesis.

All in all an interesting book--I learned something both about cholera and about cities. Recommended. ( )
  spounds | Jun 4, 2014 |
I really love this book, both in print and in the audio version. This story is fascinating and the picture it paints of science as a cooperative effort between the medical doctor and the vicar, or the professional and the citizen is an important counter to our over-emphasis on professional science in modern times.

Now, cholera is not really scary to westerners, what with the easy access to re-hydration via electrolyte enhanced liquids and intravenous fluids. Johnson paints a picture that is surely much more familiar to people in developing countries and which was familiar to our ancestors of a disease which could (and still can) wipe out entire families in a few days. It's a frightening image, made even more so when you realize there was no real idea of the cause of the disease or of how to treat it.

The tenacity and caring shown by these two men, and many others who were pursuing false leads with no less commitment, is inspirational. The science is fascinating. The story is told in such a way that the reader feels true sorrow for those who died and those who survived them and true admiration for the sheer endurance required to live in London in the 1840s.

The audio book is well read, with few mispronunciations and a good cadence and attention to sentence structure. I found I noticed different things in the audio book and in the text book - reading and hearing complement each other well in this book, though you can easily enjoy just one of the formats.

Strongly recommended. ( )
  Helcura | May 12, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 123 (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.

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Steven Johnsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gibson, BenjaminCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sklar, AlanNarratorsecondary 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"
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 . . .
First words
It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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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. 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.… (more)

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