Oct 23, 2008

Book Review: The Ghost Map

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My review

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

While “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson has been described as a study about the founding of modern epidemiology, it is also a great detective story, and a peek into some of the dankest decades of human history. Merchant-Ivory this isn’t.

For a book about cholera, why not start off by truly disgusting the reader? The most visceral chapter is the first one. Johnson describes tiers of London’s “start-up recyclers”: the coppers, the dog dung collectors, the folks who made a living out of other people’s detritus, often up before dawn scraping such filth from the bottom of the Thames. The author conveys the obvious connection between innocently dumping trash into the drinking water supply, and the innocence of drinking the tainted water. What we know now makes this a queasy chapter, but this storytelling approach offers a startling illustration of London’s squalor in the 1840′s, the lack of established public works, and how happy we should be that we have flush toilets. Take nothing for granted.

He moves into the detective work of two men, a scientist and a priest, whose different investigative techniques into the cholera outbreak (one scientific-based, one social inquiry) show that some of the best solutions come from a multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving. While these two men never worked together, in fact didn’t know that the other man even existed until near the end of the outbreak, the culmination of their findings led to a complete overhaul of London’s sanitation system, the development of public works departments, and government oversight of private industries.

One last interesting observation is the resistance of those in power to making change if the change threatens that power, regardless of the strength of arguments presented. Johnson probes into the mindset of the miasma theorists, the men in London’s medical and political establishment who, without any proof other than what’s been commonly accepted as truth, push the idea that stinky air is the main conductor of Cholera and other diseases (the “miasma”). While all the findings from the outbreak pointed to water-borne transmission, this was such an unbelievable concept for the miasmists that they refused to acknowledge the work leading up to the theory, or to read any of the findings. How very Global Warming of them.

Overall a fascinating book, at times really really gross, at times frustrating.

View all my reviews.

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