The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

I picked up a used copy of The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson with the dust jacket missing. I’m not even sure why I selected it since the grey cover gave nothing away. However, a line inside read…The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World…intriguing!

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After the first page, I was hooked! I liken Stephen Johnson’s excellent weaving of history to author Erik Larson’s style (whose Devil In The White City and Thunderstruck had me on the edge of my seat). This book takes a journey through a 7 day period in the summer of 1854 in the city of London, when one hapless neighborhood is plagued by cholera. Within a very short span, 616 folks passed away in the most terrible way.

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I must admit that though I had a basic understanding of other pestilence, I knew nothing about cholera before picking up this book. After having read it, I am more appreciative of the untainted drinking water I enjoy each and every day, and saddened by the fact that this disease is still a part of our modern world…

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Cholera is a bacteria that lives in human waste. If such tainted waste meets a water source, and then the water is ingested by people, they are at risk. Cholera has some less severe strains, and some that are very severe indeed (such as the one which caused London’s outbreak in 1854).

Once the cholera bacteria enters the small intestine, the loss of water in the victim becomes so immediate and severe¬†that dehydration can occur within hours, leaving a gaunt and lifeless individual behind. This is the least graphic description I can profer, for the disease is quite worse than that…Johnson’s The Ghost Map is not for the squeamish.

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Why did I eat up this book? First, its description of Victorian Era London and the living conditions of the city’s poor was fascinating. The book also gives an excellent synopsis of what healthcare was like (for both doctor and patient)…eeek! And from a scientific perspective, it illustrates both a period of discovery, while also the harsh battling amongst medical professionals/scientists…

For instance, in 1854 many illnesses were considered airborne. Particularly, passing on to humans at times when the air was the stinkiest (think hot, unsanitary streets during London’s summer before the efficient waste management practices of today). Therefore, to consider that cholera might be a waterborne illness (as proposed during this outbreak by a London doctor named John Snow), received considerable mocking.

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In this particular instance, Dr. Snow’s observations and queries in the neighborhood led him to believe that the outbreak was coming from one city water pump on Broad Street in particular, and he wanted that pump terminated as quickly as possible…it took a fight.

This particular story in history too, helped lead to changes in city planning, sanitation laws and waste management, and certainly opened the discussion up and away from the airborne theory alone for infectious diseases. The Ghost Map also brings individual stories to light, and shares an understanding of the players involved in such a remarkable event…

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If you have an interest in medicine, science, city planning, cartography, history, or just enjoy exploring different snapshots of the past and what people went through…this is a book for you. I will certainly remember it for a long time to come, and remain more mindful of the blessing that is a clean glass of water…