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

by Steven Johnson

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
4,0151752,512 (3.97)2 / 302
"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into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that's outdated as soon as it's updated.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)
  1. 40
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    One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 by Rosemary Ashton (Othemts)
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    The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump by Sandra Hempel (Ape)
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    The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry (John_Vaughan)
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    Sandydog1: A much, much, more recent (and equally gross) epidemiological thriller/mystery.
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    Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910 by Richard J. Evans (Rosentredere)
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English (170)  Spanish (2)  Dutch (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (174)
Showing 1-5 of 170 (next | show all)
medical-history, nonfiction, public-health, sewers, British-history, cholera, epidemiology, microbiology*****

Cholera has been around for centuries, but more became known about it in 1854 when a man ahead of his time studied the pattern of dissemination in a time when all water was grossly contaminated with feces. By his studies the knowledge that this highly contagious and devastating killer was spread by contaminated water and very slowly changes were made. Cholera is not dead. It hides in poorly treated water worldwide.
Very detailed and written in a way that is clear to all. Well worth the time and money. ( )
  jetangen4571 | Sep 21, 2022 |
I may be biased, because I read this right after realizing that I'm going to be an epidemiologist, but I'm sure this is a good book regardless.

It's like a murder mystery, but you already know the culprit. It's history, but it's entertaining. It's informative. Exciting. Emotional(?). This is definitely my book. For the layperson.

You'll be there with Dr. John Snow (no relation to the Westerosi) as he tries to convince the public health board of his theory, presumably rooting for him to win against the commonly held beliefs that all disease is caused by smell and that commoners get sick because ew, they're lower class. Or you may side with that.

It's like watching Monk or House, but... this shit is real. (And really shitty.)

And then he starts talking about nuclear bombs. wtf? ( )
  brutalstirfry | May 6, 2022 |
This is the story of Victorian London and the cholera outbreak that occurred there in the summer of 1854. It began in the neighborhood of Soho, centered on Broad Street. Over 120 people died in a three day period in Soho, and a local doctor named John Snow, along with young clergyman Henry Whitehead both set out to investigate, trying to understand how the outbreak had happened.

Author Steven Johnson works to provide a comprehensive view of the city, the times, the events of the outbreak, and the confluences and synchronicities that led to the breakthrough in understanding of the spread of cholera.

He starts with a description of the London underclass. These were the bone-pickers, the mud-larks and the “night soil” men, among others, whose scavenging jobs helped to provide the basic sanitary services that were not yet a centrally delivered feature of city living. Victorian London was the first city whose population reached 2 million souls, and without those central services it was a smelly, filthy place. As the city had not yet figured out how to successfully deal with its human waste needs in particular, outbreaks of diseases like cholera were the result.

But at the time no one understood what caused cholera. In smelly London, the prevailing wisdom was that all communicable diseases, cholera included, came from bad smells - known as miasmas. It wasn’t until the work by Snow and Whitehead that it began to be realized that cholera in fact is waterborne, resulting from infected human waste contaminating drinking supplies.

Snow and Whitehead independently visited the homes of the sick, trying to understand the course of the disease even as it was happening. Snow, one of the first anesthesiologists in England, already had spent time researching cholera and had come to believe that it was spread via water and not through the air. In his investigations in Soho, Snow was able to determine that a single water pump on Broad Street seemed to be the source of the infection. He convinced the local authorities to remove the pump handle, after which the number of cases fell.

Whitehead did not believe Snow’s analysis. It was only after seeing Snow’s mapping of the deaths in the neighborhood - his “ghost map” - that he became convinced. Together they were then able to unravel the sequence of events and locate the outbreak’s index case - it’s patient zero. Their groundbreaking work set the bar for all future epidemiological studies, and did so well before the germ theory of disease was even established. The map that Snow drew has been reproduced in “countless textbooks on cartography, information design, and public health.”

The book is a well done combination of a lovingly evoked word painting of Victorian London, and a medical thriller. There are a couple of miscues however. For one thing, even though the book is named after Snow’s famous map, the map itself does not appear anywhere in it (though a portion of the map is used as a faded set piece before each chapter). The other miscue is the epilogue, in which Johnson tries to use Snow’s map work as an entry point to discussing several modern problems, and which rambles on for twenty four pages without clearly hitting its mark. Skip the epilogue - you won’t be missing much. ( )
  stevesbookstuff | Apr 28, 2022 |
This turned out to be a great companion piece to Sandra Hempel's "The Medical Detective" because combined, you really get the whole story. Like a sociological study, Johnson covers London's growth and city structure as a massive petri dish for disease, but also its people: "...epidemics create a kind of history from below: they can be world-changing, but the participants are almost inevitably ordinary folk...not thinking for a second about how their actions will be recorded for posterity..."

The first of these ordinary folks are the "recyclers" and waste collectors of society, among them are night-soil men and sewer-hunters. By simply existing, they were proof that one can literally slosh through human waste every day, but the "miasma" will not give you cholera. The second essential group of course are the victims. The miasma theory was standard, but John Snow was a highly observant man. He built his "waterborne theory" over many years of extensive research. Even before the infamous Broad Street outbreak, he learned that 12 ordinary people living in one slum building died from cholera, but the building across from it didn't. This was because, of course, they got their water from different sources. Snow also had to go against imperfect data! Snow's colleague, William Farr, attempted to record cholera deaths by elevation, the higher ground seemingly safer. But Snow went door to door and asked where they got their water. He mapped, recorded and pursued every lead. Turns out of course, the higher elevation had a cleaner water source. He was even stunned to find that clear water may still be deadly. Later, he found an unlikely ally in Rev Henry Whitehead, a member of the Broad Street community. The author ultimately gives credit to local assistance. Without it, John Snow wouldn't have been able to succeed as he did.

The author allowed you to appreciate Snow's efforts and how lucky some of us truly are to have access to clean water. You really can't take it for granted! ( )
  asukamaxwell | Feb 3, 2022 |
The Ghost Map was extremely interesting, for the first two thirds. The last third was rehashing some of the same points over, and over, and over again—I kept paging to the end, thinking, “this has got to be the ending, yet I have fifty pages left…” As long as he was writing about cholera, he was fascinating, and even the background provided in the meat of the book, thought it went far afield, was fascinating. But when Johnson went theorizing willy nilly about the challenges of the future, he has been proven vastly wrong. His urban superiority complex shows, and he misses all the connections that might be made between the virus and larger geographic and social networks. ( )
  et.carole | Jan 21, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 170 (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 (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Steven Johnsonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Gibson, BenjaminCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sklar, AlanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
"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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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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Groups dropping like flies//breathing the germs! poisoned air!//still water, brewing

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