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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World


The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Cover


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Maja Ramirez, June 20, 2014 (view all comments by Maja Ramirez)
Steven Johnson weaves a fabulous and far-ranging story of how a dread disease met its match in this dedication to the advent of hygiene, good record keeping, and stick-to-it-iveness.

Johnson references many professions which were vital to their times without rancor or judgment; there were ragpickers and nightsoil men because someone had to do remove trash and human excrement. Even Native Americans rate a mention in that "their alcohol intolerance mostly has another explanation" (not the United States's system of reservations nor a weak "Indian constitution"), but the fact that "their ancestors didn't live in towns."

No-one in mid-1840s England knew exactly whence came cholera, but the prevailing idea was, "from bad air," a miasma. If a family member today suffers intestinal distress, we think, "Something tainted was ingested," in huge part thanks to John Snow, the humble star of the book, who, as a dedicated detective should, kept on investigating the deaths in relation to the water pumps then in use in London, and publishing his findings.

It took considerable doing to convince the mid-nineteenth century elite there that the poor were not to blame for the ills which befell them. Thanks to the work of John Snow and Henry Whitehead, It can be argued that London is where the misguided idea that being born into poverty was therefore one's destiny began to unravel, and the scientific mind, though dispassionate, was keen to alleviate suffering, and looked on the downtrodden without rancor.
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ARB, March 24, 2014 (view all comments by ARB)
I enjoy reading about medical history and knew about John Snow's work on cholera, but this book really puts it into context. Johnson not only makes the mid-19th century come alive but draws parallels to the effects of modern-day urbanization on public health and the challenges the world will face in the future.
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NYCer, August 4, 2012 (view all comments by NYCer)
Who knew cholera could be so entertaining? The amazing rigor and determination of a few individuals amongst a sea of disbelievers created a crucial paradigm shift that impacts us today. This fascinating history reads like a dramatic whodunnit.
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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
DaileyInk, January 3, 2011 (view all comments by DaileyInk)
I learned so much from this book and thought the author did a wonderful job of telling a story that could have been otherwise pretty boring. The characters, plot and place were wonderfully brought to life.
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eminson, December 3, 2010 (view all comments by eminson)
I don't have a particular interest in disease, medicine, or the 1800's, but I was thoroughly riveted by this factual account of cholera's ravaging strike on what is now the SoHo district of London. Reading about Dr. John Snow's relentless detective work delivers a valuable history lesson that also happens to be quite captivating.
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Product Details

Johnson, Steven
Riverhead Books
Infectious Diseases
Europe - Great Britain - General
Cholera - England - London - History -
Health and Medicine-History of Medicine
Edition Description:
Mass Market
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
from 12
8.20x5.56x.69 in. .62 lbs.
Age Level:
from 18

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The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic -- and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Riverhead Trade - English 9781594482694 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

In 1854, as a cholera epidemic ravaged London, prevailing wisdom blamed "miasma"; in other words, "bad air" was spreading the disease. One prominent physician disagreed. It was Dr. John Snow's work outside of the lab, however — his innovative mapmaking, of all things — that identified beyond a reasonable doubt the epidemic's true source. The Ghost Map thrives, similarly, on author Steven Johnson's interdisciplinary zeal. Local politics, medicine, urban planning, religious faith.... The Washington Post raves, "By turns a medical thriller, detective story and paean to city life, Johnson's account of the outbreak and its modern implications is a true page-turner."

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "In the short run, Snow and Whitehead saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. In the long run, their work...resulted in efficient public waste disposal systems and disease control measures that saved millions worldwide. And that work is hardly done."
"Review" by , "Lively and educative."
"Review" by , "There's a great story here...and Johnson recounts it well....His book is a formidable gathering of small facts and big ideas, and the narrative portions are particularly strong, informed by real empathy for both his named and his nameless characters."
"Review" by , "The Ghost Map charts the London cholera epidemic of 1854, from which Johnson extracts a saga of human ingenuity and true communal effort."
"Review" by , "By turns a medical thriller, detective story and paean to city life, Johnson's account of the outbreak and its modern implications is a true page-turner."
"Review" by , "This is a marvelous little book, based to a large extent on the essays delivered to an academic colloquium, just as was Dava Sobel's Longitude (1996). Yet The Ghost Map is a far more ambitious and compelling work."
"Review" by , "The simultaneously macro and micro examination of a hugely pivotal moment, both in the understanding of disease and the growth of cities. Highly informative, deeply entertaining, meticulously assembled. Splendid."
"Synopsis" by , A National Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year

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 of the spread of disease, 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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