Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: 'The Ghost Map' by Steven Johnson

✰✰✰½ During the summer of 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out in Victorian London. It began with a single case, but the outbreak spread like wildfire. With over two million people in the city and without the proper infrastructure to handle all the waste, it became a race against time to stop the spread of the disease. While families left the city in fear, two men with vastly different viewpoints set out to find answers. At the time theorists believed disease spread via noxious or bad smelling air. The Reverend Henry Whitehead, who believed in the miasma theory, visited his flock both to bring comfort and gather valuable information. But something was amiss with the miasma theory. Dr. John Snow, a respected physician, decided to pursue another course to identify the source of disease. Dr. Snow was on the search for microscopic waterborne pathogens, but he needed evidence to make his case. With the help of a skeptical Reverend Whitehead, Snow was able to create a groundbreaking map. Snow’s map visually showed that most of those who died from the cholera outbreak were clustered around a single source of water. The map helped debunk the theory of miasma and shut down the pump. The tireless efforts of these two men would impact the way scientists looked at disease for years to come. The Ghost Map is a thrilling chase through Victorian London to find the cause of a deadly outbreak before more people died.

The Bottom Line: This was an era when drinking water could be hazardous to one’s health. Dr. Snow’s forward thinking about germs and how they are passed on was at odds with the scientific community at the time. While it is obvious today, the poor disposal of human waste contributed to the unsanitary condition that caused the epidemic. Although this book was somewhat repetitive and slow in places, I found it to be informative. In fact, the information in this book has come up time and time again in other books, films, and conversations. The brief biographies about Snow and Whitehead were fascinating as was the shift away from miasma theory. Cholera is still a problem in some parts of the world today making this is a very timely topic. Recommended for those who enjoy medical mysteries and history. Also, recommended for students of public health or medicine. The book could benefit from better illustrations, especially of the famous map.

Book Club Notes: While the group agreed that this was an informative book, many took a pass on this one. Talking about human waste isn’t for everyone. Overall, this was an interesting discussion, and we agreed that we all learned something by reading this book. For book clubs wishing to discuss this book, there are discussion questions provided at Penguin. Also, be sure to check out the “Notes” section at the back of the book as well for more information. Finally, I ended up searching online for a better map for discussion purposes as the one in the book wasn’t adequate. Two sites that contain useful information are Cholera and the Thames and Professor John Mackenzie's GIS Analyses of Snow's Map.

Details: The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. Hardcover published by Riverhead Books in 2006. 320 p. ISBN: 978-1594482694

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