From Steven Johnson, the dynamic thinker routinely compared to James Gleick, Dava Sobel, and Malcolm Gladwell, The Ghost Map is a riveting page-turner about a real-life historical hero, Dr. John Snow. 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 and interconnectedness of the spread of disease, contagion theory, 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.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really enjoyed this book. The level of detail about Dr. John Snow’s contribution to medicine was nicely accounted for in a historical timeline of events surrounding the cholera epidemic in Victorian London, which was also known as the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about discovery of infectious disease, particularly cholera, history of epidemiology, Dr. John Snow, or to those who have a desire to gain perspective of urbanization and its effects on public health and vice-versa.
The author, Steven Johnson, did write with a certain level of medical literacy which I appreciated, but some readers may want to have easy access to a dictionary in order to understand medical terms and the concepts behind them. The minutia of historical context may be boring to some people, but I really enjoyed every bit of it. It incorporated both historical narrative and the author’s perception of events in parallel. He outlined his opinions and his research in greater detail at the end of the book which I liked.
As far as content is concerned, the hook and basic premise was supported in the first chapter which discussed the tasks of the night-soil men. “The toshers walked with a lantern strapped to their chest to help them see in the predawn gloom, and carried an eight-foot-long pole that they used to test the ground in front of them, and to pull themselves out when they stumbled into a quagmire.” I felt the ability to help readers visualize and engage with the main concepts through Johnson’s writing was well done in the beginning; however, in later chapters, descriptors were replaced with a more philosophical tone and agenda-setting bias about the future implications of urban expansion and social response to large-scale disaster. And for me, this would probably be better received if there were more inclusions about risk reduction from a clinical perspective especially pertaining to quality of life, rather than just quantitative impact.
Nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Dr. John’s Snow’s journey in exploring disease-related concepts and how after his death, it unfolded into a method of data collection and strides in medial research that helped to delineate notions of correlation and causation.
MY FAVORITE LINES:
“But the idea itself sprang out of a certain kind of lived experience–on the ground, as the activists still like to say. It came, in part, from seeing human beings buried in conditions that defiled both the dead and the living.” -Steven Johnson
“The observers of the time were detecting a phenomenon that we now largely take for granted: that “mass” behavior can often diverge strikingly from the desires of the individuals that make up the mass.” -Steven Johnson
“They mistook the smoke for the fire.” -Steven Johnson
“Jane Jacobs observed many years ago that one of the paradoxical effects of metropolitan life is that huge cities create environments where small niches can flourish. A store selling nothing but buttons most likely won’t be able to find a market in a town of 50,000 people, but in New York City, there’s an entire button-store district.” -Steven Johnson