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The Ghost Map

A book by Steven Johnson

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Cholera epidemic as pivotal point in urban history

  • Dec 5, 2006
In a dramatic, harrowing and heroic narrative, Johnson recreates the London of 1854 in all its teeming modernity and pestilential filth. Viewing the devastating cholera epidemic of that summer as a pivotal point in the history of the modern city, Johnson describes a city on the verge of imploding from its own success.

Population had doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2.5 million. The scavengers alone numbered 100,000 and without them the city would have soon succumbed to its own filth. Busy in their niches, the pure-finders, mud-larks, bone pickers, dredger men, bunters, toshers and others recycled the city's waste, eking out a living.

The night-soil men cleaned out the cesspools and carted the waste to farms. But as the city sprawled, their journey grew longer and more expensive. Property owners, particularly landlords, chose to let it accumulate in the cellars rather than pay to have it carted away. The modern and celebrated sewers and the sanitary and popular water closet just made things worse, flushing raw sewage into the Thames.

On a night late in August an infant came down with cholera. How she got it no one knows, but the microbe made its way from the open cesspool below the family's house into the Broad Street water supply - a particularly clean and envied pump that attracted users from all over the neighborhood. In the next days whole families died with terrifying swiftness.

Johnson imagines their anguish and fear and the mental outlook of people who knew they could wake healthy in the morning and be dead by nightfall. The bravery of a young clergyman, Henry Whitehead, was not only kind but important. It was his neighborhood and he visited and nursed the sick, making his way from one overcrowded, foul-smelling room to the next. His open-mindedness and powers of observation would prove to be no small thing.

In graphic detail Johnson describes the course of cholera and its evolution, showing how human cities created a flourishing haven for this opportunistic microbe, allowing it to spread so fast it had no need to keep its host alive.

Meanwhile the prevailing belief - among scientists as well as the population at large - was that disease was caused by miasma - foul smelling air. Johnson explores this conviction from the point of view of our own evolution, showing how, once again, city living confounded the Pleistocene brain.

But one man, physician John Snow, bucked conventional thinking. A brilliant man from a working class background, he had already attained stature in the burgeoning field of anesthesia. His observations of previous epidemics led him to suspect the water supply. Again, Johnson shows how various factors, among them Snow's origins and his home in the Broad Street neighborhood, contributed to his success. Although there was considerable resistance from city officials and the medical establishment, the city agreed to shut down the Broad Street pump. The epidemic ended.

But it had been winding down anyway. And Whitehead, who had himself drunk from the Broad Street pump, was one of Snow's staunchest critics. But Whitehead continued to gather data and help Snow map the disease. In fact, it was he who discovered the baby was the first case. On questioning the mother the last of his doubts about Snow's theories disappeared and the resultant maps convinced the city officials as well, leading to the first real municipal sewer system.

Johnson's retelling of this extraordinary story encompasses the actual movements of neighborhood individuals - most of them victims - as well as the quack cures, class prejudices, typical living conditions, evolution, and chance involved in a story that revolutionized city living.

Johnson, author of "Everything Bad Is Good for You" and "Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life," has a nimble and curious mind, which combines well with his lively writing style to show the causal connections, serendipities and ironies which often govern human civilization.

His conclusion, an epilogue in celebration of cities, offsets his first chapter. Far from destroying human life through overcrowding, filth and poverty, cities provide a better way of living - education, work, culture, etc - and help preserve the earth from our heavy footsteps. The epilogue, with its sudden leap into the present and future, is a bit jarring, but whether you agree with him or not Johnson's ideas are thought provoking.

This is a stirring and fascinating tale with lots of illuminating and engrossing digressions.

-- Portsmouth Herald

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More The Ghost Map reviews
review by . September 29, 2008
Interesting retelling of the London Cholera outbreak in 1854, and how a physician and a pastor working on the edges of their disciplines solved the mystery and drew the "ghost map" of deaths which pointed to the source of the disease.    Bogs down when Johnson generalizes to the benefit of modern cities to the economy, the environment, and world health. Yeah, maybe, but I'm not sure Johnson proves the point or rather I'm fairly sure that Johnson over-reaches the evidence to try …
review by . December 18, 2006
I've been fascinated by books chronicling disease research in less-modern times. I heard about Steve Johnson's The Ghost Map and looked forward to reading about London's fight against cholera in the mid-1800's. While interesting, I didn't find this one as compelling as other books in the genre.    Johnson looks at the cholera outbreak in London during the summer of 1854. This epidemic killed an incredible number of people in just a few days, and the medical establishment had …
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Lynn Harnett ()
Ranked #183
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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Starred Review.On August 28, 1854, working-class Londoner Sarah Lewis tossed a bucket of soiled water into the cesspool of her squalid apartment building and triggered the deadliest outbreak of cholera in the city's history. In this tightly written page-turner, Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) uses his considerable skill to craft a story of suffering, perseverance and redemption that echoes to the present day. Describing a city and culture experiencing explosive growth, with its attendant promise and difficulty, Johnson builds the story around physician John Snow. In the face of a horrifying epidemic, Snow (pioneering developer of surgical anesthesia) 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. 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. B&w illus.(Oct.)
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ISBN-10: 1594489254
ISBN-13: 978-1594489259
Author: Steven Johnson
Genre: History, Science
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
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