The Ghost Map
March 12, 2019 11:20 AM - by Steven Johnson - Subscribe

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.

“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.” —The Washington Post

In 1854 no one knew what a germ was. Everyone knew that disease was spread by bad smells or "miasmas". When people start dying of cholera in a specific London neighborhood, Doctor John Snow runs up against the limits of miasma theory, and manages to solve the problem of the broad street pump- all without any knowledge of germ theory.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (3 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Two years ago, I was leading an Americorps crew doing environmental work in weird out-of-the-way places in Utah. We had an educational hours requirement, and I read this entire book aloud, bit by bit around campfires every night. I had read the intro by myself, and I thought the weird history / gross out hooks at the beginning about the state of hygiene in London would get them involved, and then the detective story would keep people on board. It was mostly a hit, but it made me realize that all books should be edited through a campfire read-aloud process. It was very obvious what parts could be left on the cutting room floor. Near the end of the book I had to abridge it more and more as I went along, because the central story begins to get patched together with what felt like the author's hobbyhorses -- the stuff about interconnected systems and the hyperbolic gee-whiz stuff about the creation of the modern age. Those parts really fell flat when the book was read aloud. I think this book could have been 30% shorter.
posted by Rinku at 12:08 PM on March 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Johnson could have used a better editor for sure- There were parts I just skimmed because I wanted to get back to the real story. Non-fiction books can be like that frustratingly, not all the writers are as good as Kurlansky at weaving stories together, so sometimes writers throw in their own hobbyhorses at the expense of flow- looking at you Simon Winchester.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:12 PM on March 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

You'll be happy to know that pretty much every public health grad program in the world starts with John Snow and the broad street pump.

For anyone interested in a light academic take, Harvard has a great free module on this very topic. Or just jump into this video.

See also: John Snow>food adulterants>rickets>stereotype of british people having bad teeth>possible evolutionary advantage of gingers. Interesting story to be told.
posted by Telf at 2:43 PM on March 24, 2019

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