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The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London

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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 -- 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 -- 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 and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, 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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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 -- 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 -- 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 and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, 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.

30 review for The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kirsti

    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 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 instance: miasmatist: someone who believes that bad-smelling air rather than germs or bacteria cause disease (Florence Nightingale was a miasmatist) pure-finder: someone who finds dogshit and sells it to tanners to use in the leathermaking processs toshers: trash-pickers mudlarks: children who scavenge junk that toshers don't want scavenger classes: pure-finders, toshers, mudlarks, and others in the recycling business rice-water stool: don't ask Johnson's previous books have been about how the mind works, so Ghost Map is really more about how people map information and adapt to innovations than it is a straightforward history of a particular epidemic. He writes that cholera is "a supremely dark chapter in the book of death" and points out how wrong it is that people are still dying of this preventable, treatable disease. I learned that this is not a good audiobook to listen to when cooking dinner. However, it is a great audiobook to listen to when cleaning. My kitchen and bathrooms have never been more thoroughly disinfected.

  2. 5 out of 5

    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 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 medical minds in the mid nineteenth century. He can't seem to get over the fact that all manner of educated and otherwise reasonable people believed that disease was caused by noxious smells. His lengthy discussion of the bureaucratic obstacles faced by John Snow, the physician who linked cholera with contamination of drinking water with sewage, begins to wear thin about half-way through the book. The Ghost Map certainly starts promisingly enough, with a description of Victorian London's hitherto unheralded "recyclers" - the "night-soil men," "mudlarks," rag-gatherers, bone-pickers and others who made a living scavenging in London's streets, rivers, and sewers. This is fascinating stuff -- who knew, for example, that such a person as a "pure finder" (dealer in dog shit, or "pure, which was used by tanners) existed? In this Dickensian world, an astonishing diverse array of second- (or third-) class citizens eked out a living on the margins. From an examination of this nether world, Johnson then moves on to the slums of London, doing a crack-up job describing the cramped, horrid living conditions. He zeros in on one street and one family; a harried mother is caring for a sick infant, who eventually dies. The child suffers from virulent diarrhea and is wasting away. The mother washes the soiled diapers and tosses the dirty water in the cesspool just outside her door. The cesspool, in turn, oozes into a local well. The stage is set for the beginning of an epidemic. Johnson is best when he describes this world, with its reeking slums. But he is inclined, frequently, to hare after philosophical questions, not the least of which is mankind's inability to see beyond the dominant scientific paradigms of the time. This bogs the narrative down. While Johnson has many interesting ideas and speculations, it's tiring to be taken on so many unresolved side journeys. It's not quite so interesting, for example, to read (at length) of John Snow's battles with pig-headed authorities, who are blind to the obvious link that Snow establishes between one particular source of contaminated water and the cholera epidemic. Nor was I particularly enthralled to read the minutia of Snow's statistical analysis he built for his case. Johnson also seems inordinately fond of the idea of a "map" as a grand organizing theme, one which he stretches out well past the 19th century in the final chapter. Actually, the final chapter leaves Snow's London altogether and is something of an eye opener. Johnson discusses the role of cities in the modern world, as well as the gravest threats that mankind faces today. This chapter could well be a stand-alone essay. It made me think, ultimately, that this book would have made two excellent books -- one the tale of the cholera epidemic and the other of the social consequences of the rise of cities. As it is, putting them into one book, weaving between factual account and philosophical premise, was over-reaching a bit.

  3. 4 out of 5

    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 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 are about seven books worth of topics in here, wrestling each other for space with brawny arms. Were all of them woven seamlessly together into one multifaceted, but logically coherent, narrative? Well no, actually, and I found myself in a constant whiplash between fascination and frustration throughout the book. Which left me with a lot to get off my chest, so if you want to move right along to the next review before the unloading begins, I totally understand. The Contenders 1. What actually happened with Dr. Snow, the progress of the epidemic, the map and the pump handle = Fascinating. Enthrallingly, this turns out to be quite different than that story that was floating around my biology class. The way the structure follows the daily disease progress, the actions of Snow, and the previously underemphasized role played by local clergyman, Rev. Henry Whitehead -- all this was just great. If the whole book had been like this, plus a few more maps (see 5, below), I would have closed it a happy nerd, indeed. 2.The history of a classic scientific paradigm shift from the miasma (bad air) theory of cholera transmission to the waterborne theory, championed by Snow = EXTRA Fascinating. Analysis of social forces working in science? Why yes, please! This cholera epidemic struck before widespread acceptance of germ theory, so most people thought that it (and other diseases) was caused by smelly miasma interacting with poor people’s conveniently innate weakness and inferiority and stuff. Several years before the Broad Street epidemic, John Snow developed an alternate, water-borne theory of cholera transmission, and evidence provided by this epidemic started tipping the scales in its favor. Johnson covers the Kuhnian paradigm shift from miasma to water: the circumstances that gave miasma such legs, how, in the grip of the miasma paradigm, some folks designed a massive study of this epidemic that could only uncover evidence to support that paradigm and missed what was actually going on by like ten miles (and you know we’re totally doing this today, but about what??), who changed their minds (most people, eventually), who didn’t (some diehard folks who didn’t have even a nodding acquaintance with falsifiability), and why. See: a classic. (Did you know that Florence Nightingale was a committed miasmatist? I didn’t!) I wouldn’t have minded a small acknowledgement that some diseases are truly airborne, so the miasma crowd was not as off-the-deep-end as herein presented, but that’s a teeny quibble. 3. Report on waste disposal in Victorian London, with particular attention given to poop = Fascinating. ‘Nuff said. 4. Our modern understanding of the life history and evolution of the cholera bacterium = Frustrating, but maybe only to me. Host/pathogen evolution and interactions are like candy to me, because I’m weird like that, so I was quite looking forward to this bit. Well, the book and I got off on the wrong foot when he started with all that anthropomorphic language to describe the evolution of the cholera pathogen: the bacteria were “waiting patiently,” had “strategies” and “desires.” He did say, twice, that of course they’re not really hanging out and sentiently plotting our doom (for which, yay! Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire, please take note.), but then he kept right on using the misleading language. Dude! You’re a nonfiction writer! Taking complicated concepts and making them understandable is your job! Why would you tell us evolution is crucial to the story, tell us you’re explaining it wrong, then never actually explain natural selection exactly right? I didn’t get that at all. 5. Snow’s maps as visual displays of quantitative information = EXTRA Frustrating. The guy put “Ghost Map” before the colon, for Lord’s sake and dragged Tufte in, the least he could do is show us all the maps he discusses. The only Snow map in my book was not even his revolutionary Voronoi diagram. Plus, I was dying to compare Snow’s maps with the less useful Department of Sewers disease map that preceded them. Yes, you can find all the maps in the John Snow online archive, but of the seven pages of maps in here, why are they mostly copies of the same map, seemingly included for decorative purposes? Why? Why?? 6. Treatise on historical urbanization and the emergent properties of city-as-organism = Fascinating for about half a page, quickly mutating into frustrating thereafter. Johnson has a clear parallel interest in these topics. Good on him: epidemiology and urbanization are intertwined in interesting ways. However, I feel like he could have dealt with it with a few swift paragraphs demonstrating the importance of urban conditions for disease emergence and why the scale of John Snow’s investigations mattered, and moved on already. 7. Rampant speculation about impact of the Broad Street epidemic on future urbanization patterns = FRUSTRATING. Now here’s where Johnson takes that parallel interest deep into crazy-train territory. The book closes with a 25-page epilogue of not-too-convincingly-supported hand-waving about suitcase bombs, bioterrorism, avian flu and urbanization that, even now, has my eyebrows in a pucker over what the heck so much of it was doing in there. If he really wanted to put an original stamp on the book (which, after 25 pages of this jive, I’m pretty convinced he did), perhaps axing 99% of the epilogue and generating some new maps would have been a far more relevant way to go. How awesome would it be to see maps showing deaths over time, maps with different variables, maps of Snow’s data made using modern epidemiological techniques, maps of other London cholera epidemics, etc.? Very awesome indeed. In conclusion, more maps make everything better. Thank you.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Eric_W

    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. 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. Now you might say, whoa, that's more than I really wanted to know and I have no intention of so doing anyway. Well, you're right, all homo sapiens have a predisposition NOT to do just that, but given the rise of cities, the closeness with which we live, the relative ease of transportation, and the total misunderstanding of basic sanitation that existed until the 20th century, it was inevitable that the little buggers would escape their original habitat along the Ganges River. Johnson discusses the interrelationship of the rise of cities, alcohol tolerance as a genetic adaptation to increased agriculturalization. Drinking water could be quite hazardous, but drinking beer and other alcoholic drinks had survival value from a natural selection standpoint because the fermentation process and alcohol killed off many harmful bacteria. Since alcohol is a poison and ill-tolerated by many, the speculation is that as agriculture and cities began to predominate, those who could tolerate alcohol better than others survived to reproduction age. In another of those little actions that are intended to benefit, but which have unintended consequences, the change in use of sewers in London, inadvertently laid the groundwork (pun intended) for the cholera epidemic. Sewers had been designed to channel away rain water to and help prevent flooding in the city. In fact, it was prohibited to dump anything in the sewers and the Thames had been teeming with fish and quite clean. As the population increased, waste accumulated, and the aroma of piles of excrement in basements and elsewhere gave the miasmatists (those who believed disease was transmitted in the air) food for thought (the puns just keep rolling along.) So they had the brilliant idea of using the sewer system to wash the excrement out of the city and into the river which soon became foul. As it had also been the source of drinking water, the transmission of the cholera bacteria was efficient and inevitable. Snow's rational approach to discovering the cause of the disease is remarkable in other ways. It had been common (a mythos that still is often heard today) to blame disease on lack of moral fiber. Since most of the victims were poor, and we all know that the poor are morally unfit, the victims themselves were somehow responsible for the illness. Snow rejected that possibility, rationally looking at evidence and building his case for the water-bourne nature of the disease. Johnson turns a nice metaphor in describing Snow's discovery: "...how great breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton's famous phrase.Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain, a dozen separate tributaries converge and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual constructions of the age." How the source of cholera epidemics in London in 1854 was identified and explained is the subject of this engrossing work. A very good companion book to read with this one is Yellow Fever, Black Goddess: The Coevolution of People and Plagues which has an excellent section on modern cholera treatments.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    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 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 certain diseases, why the flow of the Chicago River was reversed, and info on why these diseases flourished in the first place and of how with current conditions in some third world country, it will happen again. Quitman informative book, at times too much information, learned more than I wanted to know about how waste was handled in the past. The condition were nothing short of appalling. Didn't care for the last chapter but did hold my attention for most of the book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kerrie

    This started out as an engrossing account of the filth and unhygienic conditions of Victorian London, where people literally piled shit in their basements, later to be removed by "nightsoil men" and a cemetery meant for 3000 bodies ended up containing 80,000 and gravediggers would jump up and down on the bodies in order to make room for more. It sounds insane today that anyone could live in those conditions and what's more...WTF did Victorian London SMELL like? However, after about half the book This started out as an engrossing account of the filth and unhygienic conditions of Victorian London, where people literally piled shit in their basements, later to be removed by "nightsoil men" and a cemetery meant for 3000 bodies ended up containing 80,000 and gravediggers would jump up and down on the bodies in order to make room for more. It sounds insane today that anyone could live in those conditions and what's more...WTF did Victorian London SMELL like? However, after about half the book the filler became obvious. This could have been a much shorter book if not for all the repetitive phrases, redundant information, and hammering against the miasma theory. He also spent too much time tying in epidemiology to possible future pandemic outbreaks. So what began as a fascinating book ended up becoming rather boring. So my suggestion is: fully read the first half, then start skimming, and then ignore the last 2 chapters altogether when the author jumps into his own theories about how living in densely populated cities, despite the drawbacks of disease and mass slaughter in a bio-terrorist attack, is still awesomely awesomer than living out in the country. BTW, this book probably has the highest count of terms referring to shit ever written in the English language.

  7. 4 out of 5

    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 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 question marks today, huh. even more than usual. this is an impressive book and you should, at the very least, read the first hundred pages of this and then john snow's wikipedia page or something. bottom line: i guess i like historical nonfiction sometimes?? who knew!!!!!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lynne

    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 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 there an editor?

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bettie☯

    (view spoiler)[Bettie's Books (hide spoiler)]

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ashlula

    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 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 are interested in history of medicine. John Snow is known as the father of Public Health and Germ theory, (in addition to his many contributions to medicine).

  11. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    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 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 before or if not then that the reader only needs to know enough about these ideas to further the story. I didn’t ever feel spoken down to while reading this. There is a necessity to the things that he tells us here (at least for the first three quarters or more of the book) that allows the story itself to build a momentum. In fact, the momentum of the story builds until it is difficult to put the book down. So that when he starts talking about the energy inputs that are necessary for a city to grow beyond 30,000 inhabitants toward one of millions, this is clearly information that has an important role to play in the story of London during the 1854 Soho cholera outbreak. These don’t feel like asides, they feel like important parts of the story itself. While this book is centrally concerned with the story of this cholera outbreak and of Snow and Whitehead figuring out that cholera is not caused by smelly air, but by infected water, this is really a book set at a tipping point. That tipping point is really concerned with the question of whether cities can grow beyond a few hundred thousand inhabitants and still be liveable. Where diseases like cholera could wipe out one tenth of a suburban area’s population in a couple of weeks that was still very much an open question. It would be hard to find a book that is better at presenting the relationship between facts and theories than this one is. There is a fascinating section of this book in which those looking for an explanation of why cholera struck Soho at this time had created a checklist of facts they needed to investigate – these included spotting all of the places in the area where bad smells could be found, creating endless tables of the temperature of the air and wind speed and direction over the period of the outbreak – that is, check all of the things that would generally go to confirm that cholera is an airborne disease. The blinkers our theories place on our eyes are so much easier to see in hindsight. Perhaps that is the only time we can see them at all. The last part of this book almost, but never quite, looses its way. The discussion on the increasing urbanisation of our species and the benefits and potential risks associated with this are interesting, but not as well linked to the rest of the story as I think they ought to have been. Sometimes it felt like he was struggling to make these connections. For instance, one of the major ways that it became clear that cholera was waterborne rather than airborne was by way of a map prepared by Snow: the Ghost Map of the title. And while the discussion on this map – particularly the fact that reducing the amount of information on the map made the map more informative – was fascinating, I thought the later reference to mapping the genome stretching this metaphor to breaking point. I don’t want to complain too much – as I do think that much of what is said at the end of the book is worthwhile, particularly around the threats of nuclear weapons, biological weapons and the possibility that we may be able to overcome the threats of biological hazards through our knowledge of DNA and predictive evolutionary biology. (And there is a nice aside on the dangers of Intelligent Design) However, this book is at its best when it is explaining how this outbreak happened and what cities needed to do to make sure such outbreaks never happened again. Learning that so few people thought to replace the water that patients were loosing, but rather seeking to ‘thin’ their blood by bleeding them – shows yet another way in which we blind ourselves with our theories. And this is perhaps the major theme of this book. As I’ve said, a fascinating book and one that is told in a way that would makes me wonder how the writer could possibly also have written The Invention of Air.

  12. 5 out of 5

    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 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 some wild rhetorical thrashing about with regard to urban planning, city planets (or maybe it was planets of cities), biological terrorism, nuclear bombs (what), and how wonderful the internet is, and unfortunately most of that is the conclusion and epilogue to the book so that knocks off a star for me. Johnson can write fairly well, and certainly engage the reader with a riveting narrative, but his own attempts at Grand Theorizing (which he actually warns against, repeatedly, in his own book) are sadly misguided.

  13. 4 out of 5

    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 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 any rate. I found the description of the newspaper ads & remedies incredibly sad because I see so many of them still promulgated today as pseudo-scientific cures. People are still buying supplements & using aroma therapy. A lot of this when I read "Bad Science" & it's just disheartening. I got the ebook because wanted to go back over his explanation of how cholera mutated. I didn't really care for it because of the way he framed it as a 'desire'. That was OK at first, but later on he said something about a group intelligence that came across as pseudo science. Here's that offending paragraph. It goes without saying that the bacteria are not in any way conscious of developing this strategy. The strategy evolves on its own, as the overall population balance of V. cholerae changes. In a low-transmission environment, lethal strains die out, and mild ones come to dominate the population. In high-transmission environments, the lethal strains quickly outnumber the mild ones. No single bacterium is aware of the cost-benefit analysis, but thanks to their amazing capacity for adaptation, they’re able to make the analysis as a group, each isolated life and death serving a kind of vote in a distributed microbial assembly. There is no consciousness in the lowly bacterium. But there is a kind of group intelligence nonetheless. He could have used some statistical analysis (SA) to far better effect. That's what this book is about after all, the birth & use of SA to solve large scale problems. SA shows us what is really happening overall & not just what seems to be happening from what we can see in any one spot. That's his overall point, but I don't recall where he ever comes out & says that specifically. Interestingly enough, the first epidemic council had just been formed a few years before this outbreak & that's what a lot of the book is about - figuring out how to analyze it. John Snow was the pioneer. At the halfway point & a bit beyond it's been pretty boring, often a rehash & bunch of detail on what has already been covered in as much depth as I wanted to know. Far too much repetition as the author goes back to tie in the preacher's (Whitehead) observations & the public health commissions. I understand that it is a problem to outline general trends & then go back into the specifics that caused them. Some repetition is inevitable. There are also multiple players, causes, & trends to follow, but he's covering the same ground & facts each time. It's getting very old. It was interesting the way he points out how the cure for the miasma theory wound up causing more problems based on ignorance, yet ultimately led to Snow being able to gather the necessary statistical data to narrow down the actual cause, still without knowledge of bacteria. That had been discovered, but was ignored by everyone. It also led to being able to solve the problem - eventually. The established theory prevailed far too long due to politics. I took a break at 5/7 & skimmed through it & 6/7. It's hard to skim in an audio book, but the repetition was awful, so I supplemented with the ebook. It did get interesting at the end of 6/7 & into 7/7 with more about current techniques for statistically looking at cities, including the 311 service. A long stretch considering the title, but he was trying to show that Snow & Whitehead's techniques are still being used. Unfortunately, he's covered the basics already several times. The epilogue is about doomsday scenarios in modern times from atomic bombs to 9/11 & the flu. I really dislike the way he discusses the latter. Again, he uses 'learn' as if viruses & bacteria could think. He also ignores the fact that deadly organisms are such a minority that they can actually be looked upon as poor mutations. It's not good to kill off your host, after all. He also seems to think that a city-planet is a desirable goal. WTF?!!! We are becoming more urbanized, though. He does tie this nicely in with the Broad Street epidemic & show some of the dangers we face from all sorts of mass effects biological & mechanical. He reaches pretty far & it's not his area of expertise. Overall, this would have been an excellent book if it had been about half as long. He tried to cover far too much territory & that led to a lot of repetition. It would probably have been better read as text where I could have skimmed more. As an audio book it was just painful toward the end.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dan Schiff

    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 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 made one sick. He attempts to make it a story about two men -- a clergyman and a doctor -- who together solved the mystery of the cholera epidemic, but he really doesn't have enough to string together a legitimate narrative. And finally, the last two chapters is essentially his own "master thesis" on how the ghost map of the title was the forerunner of Google Maps and such. Pretty weak stuff. Would've been much better if he stuck to the history.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    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 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 what was largely considered a doomed neighborhood, gathering information about who died, what their habits were, and most importantly how they got their water. He was working on a theory (one that turned out to be quite solidly supported) that cholera was transmitted via drinking water, and one public water pump in particular: the now infamous Broad Street pump that was befouled because a cholera victim's septic tank was leaking into its water supply. This was a time before the germ theory of disease was widely known or accepted, so Snow was more of an underdog and outsider than you might think. The prevailing wisdom of the time was the "miasma theory," which held that "all smell is disease," and that cholera and other maladies were literally carried on the wind in the form of smells and bad air. It was amazing how hard Snow and the other main protagonist of the tale, Reverend Henry Whitehead, had to fight against this theory, which was largely taken as fact despite its frequent lack of evidence. But the team's tenacity and creativity won the day, resulting in the closure of the Broad Street pump, the avoidance of another cholera outbreak, and the iconic map of cholera deaths from which the book takes its name. In addition to this central story, Johnson talks about related subjects, such as the London underclasses, the sociology and civic engineering of large cities, and the new London sewer systems. (The latter were particularly interesting, since they were built as a means of cleaning up the filth of the city, but they basically just ended up flushing it all into the Thames river and making waterborne diseases like cholera worse.) About the only complaint I have about the book is that it goes off the edge towards the end in what is basically a thinly veiled plug for Johnson's Outside In project. But in general, the whole narrative proved to be both fascinating and educational. Plus I guess I just love this history of science when it's presented in a context and with interesting characters.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jill Hutchinson

    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 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 arising from the horrible stench that hung over certain areas of London. Medicos thought that the poor who lived in wretched conditions were the center of the outbreak and bore the blame for this disease. Dr. Snow was not a believer in the miasma theory and felt that the disease may be waterborne. He and the Rev. Whitehead began a study which for the time, was very complete and fact based. They traced the infected water supply to one public pump where the majority of the people in the affected area drew their water. The pump was closed and the epidemic ended. The pioneer work of these two men was the beginning of epidemiology....the reporting and tracing of disease patterns and the government's responsibility to protect the population. Although Dr.Snow and Rev. Whitehead did not find a cure for cholera, they created the engine that drove the discovery of treatment. A very informative look at the biases and misinformation of the medical/scientific community in the Victorian age. Recommended.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    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 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 European mindset. Even within door to door mapping and the removal of the Broad Street Pump handle by Saturday- it took far past Snow's lifetime to have full acceptance of the water source evidence. The sections of the book about evolution of microbes and human city living are 6 star. And homo sapiens' memory and brainstem systems tied so closely to aroma and disease warning were 6 star, as well. This often obscures (and has throughout human history) with scentless and sightless materials which cause severe and deadly human outcomes. Just from my own perspective, I have so often wondered that so many humans consistently embrace and exalt the glories and pleasures of urban density locations. This for both personal, work, and commute "green" reasons. When I cannot imagine living in such density when all waste has to be taken away and all food and drinking liquids shipped or piped in amidst so many other vectors. With 5 cities more than 20 million now, and at least 1/4th which are squatters- it is only a matter of time. Not just for bacteria crossing within human waste, but a mutated virus through an animal vector. At one time it was a prerequisite for Chicago kids and college age classes to have some trip or class requirement tour into the Chicago Sewage plants on Lake Michigan, the reversal of the Chicago River lecture, the west of Chicago proper "poop ponds" for fertilizer products etc. And some even went into Deep Tunnel project. That's still ongoing. Our hunter gatherer ancestors would pall, and so do I- a BIG prejudice, at living anywhere with 400 people per acre. London at that time was four times denser than Manhattan right now and with no skyscrapers- few buildings over 6 stories. Those poor people in those rooms dying in family groups. Johnson tries to give you some sense of what a small "stomach ache" pang might have done to your psyche at that time. I can't think of any situation in present day disease that leaves the mind so clear and the body so failing and horrific so quickly. It must have been emotional torture. Many dead in twelve hours, 100's more in 48. Not only does this clearly draw the evidence for this particular high mark in perception needed at this specific time in history for water borne pathogens, but the book also completely demonstrates how the "truth" if it is a "whole piece" world view is often just not. This has applied to nearly every economic, scientific and logical "truth" outside of the hard sciences at one time or another. Often what everyone in majority "knows" or medicine or science accepts as empirically correct, just isn't, or is barely a sliver OR completely false within other context or vectors.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Megan Baxter

    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 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 Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here. In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jonny Ruddock

    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 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 knowledge, one or two fortuitous circumstances, dogged determination and, at the last, the help of one of his detractors. The filth and desperation of early Victorian London is laid bare in graphic terms, as is the prevailing medical knowledge (and how close it was to the breakthrough it needed is near heartbreaking), and the ultimate victory, symbolised by the simple removal of a pump handle, provides all the vindication necessary - even though for one of the heroes of the story it's posthumous. The wonderful story of how one medical breakthrough changed the world to the one we live in today, and how medial science took to its feet and defeated one of the scourges of the nineteenth century. While not true to say I couldn't put it down, I certainly couldn't wait to pick it back up. One everyone with an interest in history needs to read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    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 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, because it brings Dickensian London to life.

  21. 5 out of 5

    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 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 pump was the source of cholera-riddled water. Johnson also used a report prepared by Dr Snow's nemesis Mr Edwin Chadwick, a social reformer who insisted it was a miasma, a bad smell. What I would have liked to have seen: The Voronoi diagram that Dr Snow presented to the Cholera Inquiry Committee visually showing where Londoners of Soho got their water. People chose which local water pump to use based on how easy it was to get to, not on how close it was by map measurements. I had to look up it up online. The map on The cover of the edition I am reading is not a Voronoi diagram. The map shown throughout the book does not give the big picture while the image online does. Necessary Point: Steven Johnson is not a historian. He is a popular science writer. He has merged history and popular science to create a book that describes London's Cholera Outbreak in a medical-social context and tells his readers how Londoners now have a plumbing system that takes the waste products away. Other cities now and other cities may need a similar solution to a common problem in burgeoning cities. He also speaks of alternative solutions working in parts of the world, options to a plumbing system. Johnson makes clear that cities are great places for job, cultural development, social interactions and more, so the answer to burgeoning cities is not to disband. It is to cope with the problem. Worthwhile read.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Petra

    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 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 turd or two but lying feet deep. The book continues by following the actions of Dr. Snow and Mr. Whitehead as they look for the cause of an outbreak of cholera and eventually trace it to a particular pump supplying drinking water to a neighbourhood. It’s an astounding piece of detective work when one considers the lack of scientific and hygienic knowledge. The author got a bit carried away with the concept of the belief of “miasma” (smelly air being poisonous and the culprit for causing all disease). It was well enough to let us know that such a belief existed and was seriously believed by many, to the detriment perhaps of science, but he kept hammering on and on about it. The book then goes on to explain the construction of the London sewers and the healthier conditions caused by their construction; including no more cholera outbreaks in London. All in all, an interesting book but a bit stretched out. Particularly the second half of the book seems filled with fillers and repetitions, which made the book not as strong as it could have been. Also, the final chapter seemed more of a thesis on "the future of the city". Not sure if it belongs here as it seems a completely different topic than a cholera outbreak in Victorian London. Note to self: when in London, have a beer in the John Snow pub on Broadwick Street, just steps from where the pump that started the epidemic was located.

  23. 4 out of 5

    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 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 of those humans into metropolitan spaces and return the rest of the planet to Mother Nature." p233 I thought his view of the future of biological defences was interesting, with him suggesting that vaccines will be able to be developed by plugging details of DNA/RNA of pathogens into a computer model and thereby produce a suitable defence and/or cure. I certainly hope there is something in the pipeline, since bacteria are becomingly increasingly antibiotic resistant. The part of the book that most interested me was the detailing of the personal stories around the Broad Street pump in Soho, the living conditions and the theories of spread of disease. Less interesting to me were the parliament/policies/Acts/governmental side of things (important though they are - and of great interest to the author, I think), and he did harp on about certain aspects, like the miasma principle of spread of disease (GIT diseases like cholera spread through the air via smell ie pestilential stench) and Dr John Snow's refutation of this - it just felt as if the author was going over the same ground again and again, having already made his point the first time. I had considered listening to this as an audiobook, but am glad I chose to read the actual words as I think it would have been easy to lose track of a narration at times - I certainly had to re-read some sections because I realised my mind had wandered!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    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 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 impact of confirmation bias and how it hindered Dr. Snow's progress. The miasma theory, which suggested cholera was spread through "bad air," was prevalent at the time, and it was very difficult to change peoples' minds about it. When the data didn't quite match that transmission route, because caregivers didn't always get sick, the theory was simply adapted. Maybe some people were more susceptible to cholera due to lower moral character. Eeesh... But it is pretty amazing how he pieced it together in what became one of the first documented epidemiological studies. Highly recommended if you enjoy science history.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Phyllis

    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 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 water supply which then spread to other large cities.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence, Pete fell off and who was left? Repeat...Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence... I was really excited to read this book and it started out just as I imagined - through the dark streets and homes of Londoners falling victim to an invisible and deadly illness. He introduced some interesting descriptive accounts of mid-19th century London, with their "bottle collectors" of the time, but who actually collected and sold animal/human waste, pieces of fabric Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence, Pete fell off and who was left? Repeat...Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence... I was really excited to read this book and it started out just as I imagined - through the dark streets and homes of Londoners falling victim to an invisible and deadly illness. He introduced some interesting descriptive accounts of mid-19th century London, with their "bottle collectors" of the time, but who actually collected and sold animal/human waste, pieces of fabric from corpses and other grisly items, this portion was incredibly interesting and kept my attention. It left me wanting more, literally...because that voice was quickly squashed by another one of Steven Johnsons voices. So, somewhere, I think it was around the time the narrative moved towards the accounts of the resistance to new scientific medicine theories, (germ theory) I started to feel like I was reading the same sentences over and over and over again, (which I do sometimes) but it was actually new sentences with the same words slightly re-arranged. There were pages of this. It seems at some point Steven Johnson couldn't stop himself from saying everything 10 times over again. Which actually was starting to feel offensive, because I understood pretty well the first time around, he gave great descriptions in making his points or claims - no need to repeat. The work of John Snow, the physician central to the narrative, (and his counterpart Henry Whitehead) is remarkable, not to mention profoundly important, and I am glad to have this knowledge under my belt. I would say the first 1/3 of the book, so full of very interestining facts, descriptive accounts of biology and history with supportive arguments in and around the story that was told with an almost medical and historical prose - that was lovely and completely worth reading. But in the last 2/3's I felt, at most times, I was reading the writings of a really intelligent drunakard telling a very intriguing story, but, alas, had one too many pints and completely strangled the listeners interest by repeating himself....repeatedly. Much like one of those converstations that start out grabbing your attention and then you suddenly realize you need to start plotting your escape. My escape was skipping part of the epiloge, when he started talking about "the ghost map" created by Snow, being the foundation for Google maps and, well, that's where I decided to just make a run for it (it wasn't soon enough). I'd say 5 stars for the beginning 2 stars for the larger portion...which was actually probably the smaller portion if he would have just said everything once.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    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 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 and...err...intimate practices of Victorians that Johnson describes here might dash some of the romance out of the era (imagine that instead of flushing "nuisances" away, you and your neighbors just slopped everything in your basement and let it sit there more or less permanently). Now imagine all your favorite Dickens and Londen-lodged Austen characters living like that because...well, now we know why all that is just skipped over in fiction, right? I suppose this is the place to add that this book is not for the easily nauseated. Another interesting angle of the story is the way much of the public and government officials reacted to Cholera--the medieval notion of sickness caused by bad smells and miasma was still firmly ensconced in the general consciousness--and it took some very creative evidence presentation for Dr. Snow and Rev. Whitehead not to be dismissed as total hacks. That illness could be waterborne was even harder for them to prove because the infected well in this case "appeared" to have the clearest, healthiest water in town. However, this book starts to repeat itself and its main ideas after a while, to the point where I suspected the author had run out of material and had to meet some sort of word-count quota. The final chapter, in particular, goes completely off the rails, bringing in completely off-the-wall analogies to nuclear and biological warfare and flailing, ham-fisted "wtf?" -invoking opinions. I was prepared to give this one 4 stars, if only it had stopped earlier.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sandi

    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 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 outbreaks of cholera during the period. Due to the hard work of a doctor and a minister, one particular outbreak was traced to a particular pump from which people got their drinking water. This proved that cholera was transmitted through contaminated water, not through the air or by person-to-person contact. "Ghost Map" is a fascinating look at the scientific process at a time when science was hit or miss. The author does lose focus at the end and his epilogue makes very little sense. That brought this book down from 4 stars to 3.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Caidyn (SEMI-HIATUS; BW Reviews; he/him/his)

    Up until the end, this was a four star read. Then Johnson took the implications of John Snow's work way too far and it just didn't work for me. And given that, in this book, the last two chapters -- out of ten -- focused on that, it's hard to ignore. Other than that, it was an interesting book. I learned all about what cholera does to the body, and let me tell you that it was a bit much at times. I also learned about miasma theory of disease, which is fascinating to me. John Snow was way ahead o Up until the end, this was a four star read. Then Johnson took the implications of John Snow's work way too far and it just didn't work for me. And given that, in this book, the last two chapters -- out of ten -- focused on that, it's hard to ignore. Other than that, it was an interesting book. I learned all about what cholera does to the body, and let me tell you that it was a bit much at times. I also learned about miasma theory of disease, which is fascinating to me. John Snow was way ahead of his time in many ways and was an impressive man. I mean, he did great work. And he was a man far ahead of his time. By the time his peers could appreciate him and his work, he was gone.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Croaker

    On August 28, 1854, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis emptied a bucket of waste water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history. A Victorian city with more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference. This is the story of two men: Dr. John Snow who pioneered the use of ether as an anesthetic in the United Kingdom, and on a personal note, mentions the first medical use of ether by Dr. William Morton; a On August 28, 1854, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis emptied a bucket of waste water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history. A Victorian city with more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference. This is the story of two men: Dr. John Snow who pioneered the use of ether as an anesthetic in the United Kingdom, and on a personal note, mentions the first medical use of ether by Dr. William Morton; and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, an Oxford-educated young man whose Anglican calling did nothing to abate his fondness for London taverns. The book begins with a description of London as a city of scavengers: bone-pickers, rag-gatherers, pure-finders, dredgermen, mud-larks, sewer-hunters, dustmen, night-soil men, bunters, toshers and shoremen. Against this backdrop of vile and ghastly smells, and in the face of a horrifying epidemic, Snow posited the then radical theory that cholera was spread through contaminated water rather than through miasma, or smells in the air. Against considerable resistance from the medical and bureaucratic establishment, Snow persisted and, with hard work and groundbreaking research, helped to bring about a fundamental change in our understanding of disease and its spread. Johnson weaves in overlapping ideas about the growth of civilization, the organization of cities, and evolution to thrilling effect. This is a multifaceted book incorporating a detective story, an introduction to statistics (math), and a personal history. The Ghost Map is a book that, like the work of Jared Diamond, presents both vivid history and a powerful and provocative explanation of what it means for the world we live in. Unlike Jared Diamond however, Steve Johnson does not load the facts to reach the objective that Diamond would have us believe. From Snow's discovery of patient zero to Johnson's compelling argument for and celebration of cities, this makes for an illuminating and satisfying read. It is not a book for the squeamish however; a vivid description of death from cholera is graphically and terrifyingly detailed. As interesting as the main body of the book is, Johnson ends with an Epilogue, which I believe was probably written well after he finished the telling of Dr. Snow’s story. If, for no other reason, read that chapter, but don’t expect to sleep well again. And when you read a newspaper article about a poultry worker dying in Thailand, think about what would happen if H5N1 were to undergo a single transgenic shift. Now, try to go back to sleep.

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