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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

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

What We Take for Granted

In the London of 1854, to live was to be not dead yet.
A city of more than two million people in 30 square miles, London was a complex gathering of layers of underclasses mixed with the wealthy few. Lacking the infrastructure to support its exploding population, the ci...
In the London of 1854, to live was to be not dead yet.
A city of more than two million people in 30 square miles, London was a complex gathering of layers of underclasses mixed with the wealthy few. Lacking the infrastructure to support its exploding population, the city was ripe for plaque, epidemics, and rampant diseases. Knowing no reason for its cause and having no idea for its cure, the people of the city suffered numerous epidemics of Cholera during the 19th century.
"The city is life's largest footprint; from man to microbe; each found a new way of making a living," is the theme of this story. The author tells us of the story of a city that had no means of recycling its waste, and the disaster that was manmade. Water recycling is the hallmark of almost all complex systems from the rain forests to the coral reefs, and waste management, in whatever form, is essential to life on earth. The spread of cholera through drinking water was an unknown concept to a scientific world that had not yet discovered bacteria.
John Snow, renowned for his work in anesthesiology and the use of ether and chloroform, struggled to find the reason for the spread of cholera, even though he could not find a cure. This is the story of his journey to save the people of London, and his unlikely liaison with the Rev. Henry Whitehead. These two men changed the history of England's greatest city, and brought sanitation and water safety to a world that knew little of either. Visionary engineer Joseph Bazalgette was responsible for the sewer system of the city of London that has remained successful into the 21st century.
This history explores the dramatic increase of people in urban spaces, fueled by the loss of common land in England that brought tenant farmers to the cities and the use of coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution and need for cheap labor.
The author explains that through much of human history, the solution to the public health problem was not the purifying of the water supply: it was to drink alcohol with its antibacterial properties. Even though people did not know the reason, they knew that it was safe to drink beer (and later wine and spirits) than to drink water. Because alcohol is poisonous (ethanol) and additive, in order to survive, the chromosomes in the DNA of man had to adapt so that man could be genetically tolerant. As man evolved, his system was able to digest the alcohol. This genetic code is only found in the descendents of the town and city dwellers of early times, not the hunter-gatherers who did not live in towns.
It is fascinating to learn of the discovery of tea which became the de facto national beverage of England. The caffeine and tannic acid killed bacteria in the boiling and steeping process, warding off waterborne diseases. The effects were carried through the mother's milk, and fewer babies suffered from dysentery and child mortality rates increased.
The customary drinking of water from sources other than wells and streams came into practice in the mid-nineteenth century when it began to be piped into homes or cisterns. The water was piped from the river Thames which was also where all of London's waste was dumped. In 1894-95, more than 15,000 Londoners died of cholera from drinking water.
The megacities of our developing world are wrestling with the same problems of 19th century England, according to the author's research, and in 2010, the five largest cities on the planet will be Tokyo, Khaka, Mumbai, Sa

posted by MayDefarge on January 19, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

The Ghost Map -- Ups and Downs

I would rate the first two-thirds of this book (actually I listened to the Audio CD) as a 4 to 5. It is very interesting from the medical and historical standpoint, on a subject one might think dull on first impression, presented in an entertaining way. However, the fin...
I would rate the first two-thirds of this book (actually I listened to the Audio CD) as a 4 to 5. It is very interesting from the medical and historical standpoint, on a subject one might think dull on first impression, presented in an entertaining way. However, the final third of the book, which I rate as a 1 to 2, degenerates into a boring jumble of socioeconomic/philosophical and political blabber, ranging from the benefits of the internet to city dwellers to nuclear terrorism, population control, global warming and even a random negative comment on "Intelligent Design". Perhaps the author needs to write a separate book covering these topics with better organization and editor. Save time and just read the initial medical/historical part!

posted by thoughtful on July 4, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2012

    Science nerd here

    Loved this book. Self professed science and history nerd who also loves a good narrative. This book had all three. Great read, at times depressing as you learn of all the death. Then just as quickly its uplifting as you read of the triumph of science over darkness and superstition, and its own ignorance and arrogance.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 24, 2011

    Gripping

    If you are at all interested in a good mystery or a fantastic scientific revelation you should read this book, it's in depth, informative, and has a powerful impact on your mind. It's fun to see how John Snow is smarter than everyone else because he's the only one who can see the solution to the cholera epidemic.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2013

    Public Health Nurse here. Follow Dr John Snow, the Father of Epi

    Public Health Nurse here. Follow Dr John Snow, the Father of Epidemiology, as he persists in his meticulous
    investigation of the source of deadly cholera epidemic of Victorian London. Were it not for his convictions, altruism and courage,
     thousands more have died. His " I'm right, you're wrong and I'll prove it!" attitude gave him fortitude in the face of scathing opposition from public leaders.
    The author reveals that Florence NIghtingale was no angle of mercy here. 
    There's something for everyone's interests: detective story, intrigue, health & politics, sociology, scientific research, Victorian life, personal tradegies and 
    triumphs. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 23, 2012

    Fascinating

    Very interesting history of cholera, diseases like it, and how medical science changed with the addition of public health concerns.

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  • Posted May 4, 2011

    history!

    This does apply to real life issues!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 21, 2008

    The Ghost Map

    In a gripping account of intelligent work, Johnson has written the Ghost Map with suspense, intrigue and scientific accuracy. A great book for anyone interested in science, large cities of the past or anyone who just likes to read a good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2007

    The Ghost map

    Amazing! This was not only science and history, but also a compelling story. Johnson is able to guide the reader throughout the book, making the reader seem as if they are actually in that situation. Steven Johnson organized this book in a very clear way, by first introducing cholera, then using detectives to ¿solve¿ the epidemic and finally ending with the bigger picture of society and its future. This book clearly illustrates the positive and negative effects any epidemic can have. Though it may seem as if cholera only affected the people, it also influenced history, science and medicine. It was very easy for me to read because I had just finished covering the plague in medieval history class. Just like cholera, it was believed to be caused by a substance in air. The plague has amazing similarities with Cholera, and by reading this book, I further learned how devastating any epidemic can be. I also learned that though epidemics indeed had negative affects as a whole, it contributed to the development of science and medicine. I extremely enjoyed this book.

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