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

3.8 58
by Steven Johnson, Alan Sklar

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A thrilling historical account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London-and a brilliant exploration of how Dr. John Snow's solution revolutionized the way we think about disease, cities, science, and the modern world.

From the dynamic thinker routinely compared to Malcolm Gladwell, E. O. Wilson, and James Gleick, The Ghost Map is a riveting page

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A thrilling historical account of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London-and a brilliant exploration of how Dr. John Snow's solution revolutionized the way we think about disease, cities, science, and the modern world.

From the dynamic thinker routinely compared to Malcolm Gladwell, E. O. Wilson, and James Gleick, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner with a real-life historical hero that brilliantly illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of viruses, rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry. These are topics that have long obsessed Steven Johnson, and The Ghost Map is a true triumph of the kind of multidisciplinary thinking for which he's become famous-a book that, like the work of Jared Diamond, presents both vivid history and a powerful and provocative explanation of what it means for the world we live in.

The Ghost Map takes place in the summer of 1854. A devastating cholera outbreak seizes London just as it is emerging as a modern city: more than 2 million people packed into a ten-mile circumference, a hub of travel and commerce, teeming with people from all over the world, continually pushing the limits of infrastructure that's outdated as soon as it's updated. Dr. John Snow-whose ideas about contagion had been dismissed by the scientific community-is spurred to intense action when the people in his neighborhood begin dying. With enthralling suspense, Johnson chronicles Snow's day-by-day efforts, as he risks his own life to prove how the epidemic is being spread.

When he creates the map that traces the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn't just solve the most pressing medical riddle of his time. He ultimately established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.

The Ghost Map is an endlessly compelling and utterly gripping account of that London summer of 1854, from the microbial level to the macrourban-theory level-including, most important, the human level.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
" illuminating and satisfying read." —Publishers Weekly Starred Review
Trust Steven Johnson to put an intriguing and unconventional spin on a well-known story! The nimble-minded nonfiction writer who dazzled us in Emergence, Mind Wide Open, and Everything Bad Is Good for You now parses a storied incident from the annals of public health -- the Broad Street cholera epidemic of 1854, a deadly outbreak that literally decimated London's population in eight days. At the center of the story stand two heroic figures: Reverend Henry Whitehead and Dr. John Snow, whose combined efforts in mapping the disease solved the mystery of how cholera spreads and created a model of information design with wide-ranging implications. Using historical narrative as a scaffolding for some of his famously big ideas, Johnson shows how this story from Victorian times offers lessons for modern cities facing a host of problems -- from urban sprawl to environmental crises and the threat of bio-terrorism.
David Quammen
It’s fascinating to read that because of the life history of Vibrio cholerae, which circulates in water flowing from one human gut to another, the bacterium never caused big trouble in Britain until crowded urban conditions exposed people to drinking one another’s sewage. But Johnson’s account of the 1854 epidemic, along with the meditation on cities that he extrapolates from it, doesn’t need to call attention to its own cleverness. The Ghost Map is elegantly sufficient, without that, to get readers to do some thinking on their own.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The idiosyncratic thinker and cultural historian Johnson leaps from trumpeting video games (in his previous book Everything Bad Is Good for You) to uncovering the history of murderous cholera infestations in London and the scientific research that revealed the microbial origins of the outbreaks. Sklar reads Johnson's engaging book with a deep, measured baritone that is the embodiment of solidly backed reasonability. Sklar makes each word sound as if it has been chipped into a block of marble, there to rest for all eternity. This is not always conducive to following the flow of Johnson's narrative, but Sklar does well with his voice what Johnson seeks to do with his book: insert a slip into the history book, adding the mundane deaths of working souls and the audacious efforts of scientists into the story of the European march of progress. Simultaneous release with the Riverhead hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 21). (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
An account of how Dr. John Snow solved a medical mystery by tracking cholera's spread through Victorian London. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An intrepid doctor and an enlightened minister pursue a cholera outbreak to its lair in 1850s London. It's in the water, not the air. This was the discovery that young Dr. John Snow presented to skeptical public-health officials, who were committed to the prevailing, centuries-old theory that foul odors carry disease. As Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You, 2005, etc.) ably shows, London in 1854 was indeed a stinky city containing much fecal matter from people and animals, as well as waste from manufacturers. It was the waste from a single infected infant, however, that got into the water supply near the popular Broad Street pump in Soho and empowered Vibrio cholerae to kill hundreds. Johnson recounts how Dr. Snow and "affable clergyman" Henry Whitehead walked the streets, first independently and then in concert, to determine who was dying, who was surviving-and where. Snow's map charting the dimensions of the outbreak, avers Johnson, did not have an immediate effect (other than convincing officials to remove the pump handle, a decision that saved hundreds, maybe thousands), but it has had an enduring one. Science, not superstition, battled a disease, and in the ensuing years, public officials took steps to prevent another outbreak by building the vast sewer system that continues to function in London. In addition to telling the story of the outbreak, Johnson offers mini-lessons on related topics: how cholera kills, how Victorian London dealt with its messes, how and why people cling to false theories. He devotes the final 70 pages to a paean to cities and an assessment of the principal threats to their continuation. He notes that metropolises in developing countries face enormouspublic-health problems, and he worries about terrorists armed with weaponized viruses and/or nuclear weapons. Lively and educative. Agent: Lydia Wills/Writers & Artists, East Coast

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Product Details

Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Library - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 6.40(h) x 0.90(d)

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" illuminating and satisfying read." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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Ghost Map 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 58 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
ctothep More than 1 year ago
I love historical stories that aren't usually written about. Clearly this was well researched but it doesn't read as a typical, heavily researched book would normally.
Steven connects with the reader with well detailed accounts and historical figures so much so that you can easily set yourself back to 1854 London.
Simply wonderful.
MayDefarge More than 1 year ago
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
Lathis More than 1 year ago
As usual, Steven Johnson has serious issues editing himself. When on topic, this writing is engaging and witty...when off topic, he is pompous and dull. Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson spends about 1/2 of all his books painfully off topic. Spend your money on "An American Plague" by Jim Murphy instead.
threeoutside More than 1 year ago
This is the story of a young clergyman and a young up-and-coming physician in London, who - for the most part - independently and almost unwittingly, forged a new science: epidemiology, in their tireless and fearless efforts to trace the source of a cholera outbreak in a poor part of town. Back then, the general belief (among the upper classes) was that disease of all kinds was airborne, and the poor were disproportionately afflicted because of their essential dirty, lowdown lives, which included (in the upper crust's minds anyway) their rotten morals. The doctor and the pastor look, from our age, like towering heros compared to the much less likeable know-it-all "important" people who ran things. This book has it all: villains, heros, sympathetic victims, breathless suspense. For anyone interested in the history of medicine and science, this is a must-read. I would have given it 5 stars except the author has somewhat the tendency to repeat himself in places. Otherwise I'm glad I bought it because I will be reading it again, down the line a ways.
FreakOfNature13 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great book with hiostorical value. A topic few of us know much about. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of the lives of "real people". Johnson describes the work conditions, living conditions and struggles of those who lived in poverty and described the prejudices against them by arrogant "upper class" citizens and politicans of the day. He clearly makes a case for the onset, spread and poor managment of this outbreak as being in large part due to a class driven society in which the conditions of the poor and the onslaught of this disease are easily disregarded and accepted until it begins to spread beyond the confines of the slums.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be very detailed and educating. The subject matter is not for a weak stomach: it's about cholera, a disease that is spread through human waste. But I thought it was fascinating to read the description on London at the time and then step by step through the detective process. I was mildy disapointed by the end though because it seemed to draw out and be a bit repetitive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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. 
thoughtful More than 1 year ago
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!
JMFriedman More than 1 year ago
The Ghost Map begins in the back streets of London just before the great cholera epidemic. In fact, had I not known better, I'd have guessed it to be a novel of Dickensian London as the author is an excellent storyteller. The details of the Victorian period are at once captivating and a little off-putting, but there is a method to the structure that soon becomes apparent and draws the listener deeply into the science of it all. That Alan Sklar is a wonderfully talented reader makes the experience doubly intriguing. I, for one, would have believed forever that a rabbit-warren city like New York would be a hotbed of disease. Johnson's assertion that cities, with their clean water and sewer systems built on the realizations that cholera brought to light, are actually the least likely venues for blights of this nature left me with a new perspective and new avenues to explore. Insight is the subject of this book and its finest feature. Scientists may already be familiar with the history of cholera and the simple, obvious cure that might have saved a city. The rest of us will just sit fascinated as the terror grows legs, is trapped and dissected and put, at last, to rest. Steven Johnson has brought avid readers a dramatic addition to private libraries everywhere.
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Patito_de_Hule More than 1 year ago
The Ghost Map follows Dr. John Snow on his quest to discover the cause of a terrible cholera outbreak in Victorian England. Johnson makes investigative epidemiology so interesting that I could almost see it dramatized (and fictionalized) into a TV show - people DO love their investigative TV! :) But that's beside the point, I guess. At the time of this outbreak in 1854, the popular theory for the spread of cholera was miasma - deathly air that carried disease. After a LOT of investigative footwork, Snow drew a map of the cholera outbreak, demonstrating that the pattern followed streets that led to a particular well (the Broad Street pump) rather than following a circular pattern you'd expect with the spread of bad air. This map, and the investigation leading up to its creation, revolutionized epidemiology. In fact, many consider Snow the "first epidemiologist."  I really enjoyed this book. The writing was engaging (it had a few boring parts in the end when Johnson was describing the map in great detail - I think that may be a problem with listening to the audio book rather than actually reading it, though). The subject was fascinating. Sklar did a good job of narrating the book, and except for the very end with the description of the map, I was quite pleased with the book's audio version. If you have any interest in epidemiology, or the history of medicine, I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Perhaps I am spoiled by reading books of a simialr genre written by Erik Larsen but I found it difficult to stay interested in The Ghost Map. Although the information in this book was interesting, it was presented in a really frenetic way, jumoing from social implications, to medical advances, to moral obligation and back again. I found the poor transiton between the topics and eras to be distracting. Overall, I was disappointed because this book had a topic with potential for a great read but it just never got there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I learned so much from reading this book. However, the author got "stuck" in some areas and repeated and repeated the same info. At times, I wanted to close it up, never to return. But, I continued on. It was worth it, but it could have been 60 pages shorter.
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