The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson

Don’t you love titles with semicolons?  This one’s full name is The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.  In a lot of ways, it’s like And the Band Played On – a medical mystery!  The book follows a cholera epidemic in London in 1854 (the year Oscar Wilde was born!), how it began and how it spread, and how a scientist and a vicar tracked it down and discovered how it was transmitted.

What had happened was that a baby girl got cholera, and her mother dumped her diapers in a place that contaminated the water supply of a water pump on Broad Street.  The pump was known to have unusually good water, and there were people several neighborhoods away who would send their children for water from the Broad Street pump.  V. unfortunate for them, this turned out to be, as they then all got cholera.  And died.

Scientist John Snow was a pioneer in the field of anesthesiology.  He tested doses of ether on himself repeatedly, explored the effects of ether in cold and warm environments, and assisted in the childbirth of Queen Victoria’s eighth child (with chloroform!).  He formed a theory that cholera was being transmitted through contaminated water supplies, and investigated it relentlessly, with the (eventual) assistance of Broad Street vicar Henry Whitehead.

While the cholera epidemic was still raging, this book had a lot of momentum, and I couldn’t stop reading.  This is what makes And the Band Played On compelling, that as the various doctors (the French guys and the NIH and the CDC) tried to work out what was causing the disease, it was killing people straight along.  John Snow figured it out, and got the (unconvinced) parish Board of Governors to take the handle off the Broad Street pump, and the epidemic was pretty much over.  This happened a little over halfway through the book, and after that it was less enthralling.

Another issue I had was that the author shifted focus at the end of the book, and went on about how the lessons learned from cholera are applicable to our issues today, with global warming and nuclear weaponry and urbanization.  This felt all deraily, and contributed to the general loss of momentum in the latter half of the book.  It was interesting, the future of our nation and so forth, but it wasn’t the same book.  Strange.

But mostly I enjoyed it a lot.  Thanks to Tara for the recommendation!  Other reviews: Rhapsody in Books, A Book a Week, Books and So Many More Books, She Treads Softly, What Kate’s Reading, Loud Latin Laughing, The YA YA YAs.  Let me know if I missed yours!

  • I had heard before that Snow traced cholera to a contaminated water source, but don’t know any details about it. I wonder if I’d like this book, as I did enjoy reading one about how the polio vaccine was found. Sounds like the ending got far off topic, though!

  • I’m not good with medical detail and would probably faint a few times while reading this. 🙂 But I wonder whether you’ve read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, about the Hmong child who is seriously ill and caught between the traditional medicine techniques her parents prefer and the Western medical world she lives in? I bought it, because I’d heard it was so good, and every time I go near it, I read something that means I have to sit down with P G Wodehouse for a while. So I need someone to write a good review for me. 🙂

    • Ah, but does the child triumph and live happily ever after? Because I could probably make it through if I knew it was going to end well (like the London cholera epidemics ended with a nice new sewer system), but otherwise I am not sure I could.

  • This is totally off topic, but Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr IS out now! I’m sorry I didn’t say so in my review, I’ll edit it once I have a chance but I wanted you to know. 🙂

    • Oh yay! Sounds like it’s time for a visit to the bookshop!

  • Schatzi

    You keep reading interesting, worthwhile books, and I keep lazily re-reading adolescent trash.

    YOU’RE MAKING ME LOOK BAD.

    • Hahaha, I’m just not saying when I reread adolescent trash. I have just read three Caroline B. Cooney books in a row and cannot think what to say about them. And I’ve ordered a fourth one from PaperbackSwap and am surprisingly excited about getting it. Cause it’s my favorite one of her books.

  • Pingback: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson « The Sleepless Reader()