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 , 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 inter connectedness 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


10 thoughts on “The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

  1. Kirsti Kirsti says:

    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 processstoshers trash pickersmudlarks children who scavenge junk that toshers don t wantscavenger classes pure finders, toshers, mudlarks, and others in the recycling businessrice water stool don t askJohnson s previous books have been about how the mind works, so Ghost Map is reallyabout 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 beenthoroughly disinfected


  2. Kay Kay says:

    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 astraightforward 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 astraightforward 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. Rachel Rachel says:

    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 learnabout 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 learnabout 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 Contenders1 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 fewmaps 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 somuch 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 farrelevant 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,maps make everything better Thank you


  4. Eric_W Eric_W says:

    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 sthan 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. Diane S ☔ Diane S ☔ says:

    3.5 Had seen the PBS special on Snow and his discovery during the cholera epidemic a few months back and this addeddetail 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 addeddetail 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, learnedthan 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. Paul Paul says:

    This is an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and of the work of John Snow who through his scientific investigations managed to establish that cholera was waterborne and that the source of this outbreak was the Broad Street pump This was going against the scientific opinion of the time a miasmic theory which argued that air, small and conditions were responsible The book covers a variety of areas history, biography, detective work, epidemiology and scientific investigation Johnso This is an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and of the work of John Snow who through his scientific investigations managed to establish that cholera was waterborne and that the source of this outbreak was the Broad Street pump This was going against the scientific opinion of the time a miasmic theory which argued that air, small and conditions were responsible The book covers a variety of areas history, biography, detective work, epidemiology and scientific investigation Johnson uses a Victorian novelist s trick and takes a chapter to introduce each player The first chapter introduces the city of London and then the main players, John Snow, Rev Henry Whitehead, Edwin Chadwick and William Farr The account of Snow s investigations is fascinating The descriptions of the conditions in London before the sewer system was built was pretty stomach churning I never realised that most basements cellars were used as cesspits Also the descriptions of the myriad citizens who in varying ways made a living out of the waste has its own fascination It s a great story and I knew a bit about Snow, but I was less aware of the role of Whitehead He was working as a vicar in the area and knew and visited many of those who died He did a good deal of the detective work that supported Snow s thinking Snow, of course, was already known for his work on chloroform and anaesthesia and would have had a place in the history of medicine just for that Johnson s introduction to the book is a good summation This is a story with four protagonists a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.This book is an attempt to tell the story in a way that does justice to the multiple scales of existence that helped bring it about from the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria, to the tragedy and courage and camaraderie of individual lives, to the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, all the way up to the sprawling metropolis of London itself It s the story of a map that lies at the intersection of all those different vectors, a map created to help make sense of an experience that defied human understanding The book is somewhat repetitive at times and then there is the epilogue, which leaves the subject of the book and is muchspeculative Johnson looks at increasing urbanization, arguing we are becoming a city planet and looking at what might put this at risk He focuses on various types of terrorism, individual with weapons and explosives, portable nukes, chemical and biological Here Johnson is in areflective mode, but it is very speculative and not really on the mark with too much painting terrorists as pantomime villains and not enough analysis Skip the last chapter


  7. emma emma says:

    who knew i d find a nonfiction account of the epidemiological history of cholerainteresting 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 likeeh 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 cholerainteresting 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 likeeh 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 eventhan 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. Lynne Lynne says:

    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. Ayse_ Ayse_ says:

    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


  10. Bettie Bettie says:

    view spoiler Bettie s Books hide spoiler view spoiler Bettie s Books hide spoiler