on 2 November 2009
Steven Johnson's narrative initially grabs you by the throat and the book is literally a page turner if there ever was one. A parade of the most appaling professions with which people eked out a meagre existence, the hairraising living conditions of the majority of Londoners and the very vivid and utterly dramatic description of the course of the disease (most people who contracted cholera died within 48 hours and knew it; they often saw their families dying before their very eyes without being able to do anything) makes you realise how lucky we are to be living in the present and not in Victorian times. But after 228 pages Johnson loses his thread somewhere and the remaining thirty-odd pages are quite frankly awfully boring and have little or no bearing on what went on before. An editor would have been welcome indeed. But since the lion's share of the book deserves eight stars and only the last tiny bit two, my verdict in the end would be five.
on 16 April 2008
I read this after it was recommended on Radio 4's book club, and thought that it was generally pretty good. It was obviously well researched and the writing was engaging. My only complaint was that the story did not have enough substance to justify a book that is couple of hundred pages long. Initially, I really enjoyed the book, with its evocative descriptions of Victorian London - night soil men and all. However, the author soon began repeating himself and labouring certain points (I lose count of how many times he stated that Dr Snow and Rev Whitehead were mutually dependent on each other when it came to solving the problem of how cholera is transmitted - but it felt like too many!) My overall impression was that this story would have made a good article, but that it had insufficient depth to require a book of this length.
on 16 March 2013
I enjoyed this book a lot. It is packed full of interesting facts and anecdotes. I think I have now found the genre of writing which I enjoy the most, ie social history with a good story to ignite the imagination! This book is both entertaining and educational.
Perhaps the most interesting observation for me in this book is that of the obvious difficulty faced by Dr. Snow and later Reverend Whitehead when trying to persuade the establishment that it was the water and not the air which carried the disease. It is only 150 years since this happened and I find this vision of our ineptitude quite revealing! The author also includes on this subject an enlightening passage about how we have evolved an exaggerated aversion to odours of decay and putrefaction - probably as a self defence mechanism against the consumption of unsuitable food stuffs, and that this had a lot to do with the enthusiasm of the miasma theorists - `All smell is disease`.
Some of the reviewers of this book are critical of the epilogue, so I approached it with a little hesitancy. However, I did not find it particularly objectionable. The author does depart a little from the main subject of the Broad Street epidemic, and writes about the evolution of modern city culture, but I found some interesting material - `The Victorians could barely see microbial life-forms swimming in a petri dish in front of them. Today, a suspicious molecule floats by a sensor in Las Vegas, and within hours the authorities at the CDC in Atlanta are on the case.`
on 19 February 2013
The history of how Dr John Snow saved London from cholera is well-known, but, as Steven Johnson shows, not as well-known as we may have thought. The role in providing decisive support for Snow's theory, concerning the Broad Street outbreak of 1854, actually fell to a curate named Whitehead, who used his immense local knowledge and the trust he had built up with parishioners (although I'd imagine a few of the locals weren't actually Anglicans by then) to fill in the last gap in the puzzle.
The irony, Johnson points out, is that Whitehead had initially been strongly opposed to Snow's ideas, but was won over to them during the course of his own investigations. The result didn't transform London overnight and can't even be said to have been behind the mighty Bazalgette sewer construction project (which Johnson rightly rates as the greatest London building project ever undertaken), but Snow's findings finally took root in the minds of the professionals in charge of London's public health.
It is a fascinating story and heart-breaking, of course, at many turns. For the most part, Johnson writes it well. I think he is a bit repetitive, however, and frequently discursive. There is a fairly wide divide between explanation and plain showing-off and Johnson quite frequently finds himself stranded on the wrong side of it.
My main complaint with this book, though, is the epilogue, which seems to go on forever. Yes, Johnson is striving to argue that Snow's mapping of the cholera outbreak set the standard for all sorts of analogous mapping in other contexts and demographics, but, beyond that, it's just tedious self-indulgence. He probably doesn't actually use the phrases "what if", "but, there again", or even "the above notwithstanding", but that will be because he churns out mighty stream-of-consciousness paragraphs to take their place.
Of course, he genuflects to "global warming". To be fair, he doesn't seem to consider the concept terribly apocalyptic, but it's a shame he didn't notice, even back in 2008, that the warming scare was the "miasma" theory de nos jours.
Definitely worth reading. Don't bother with the epilogue. On the Kindle, the map itself does look like a ghost, but I don't know if that is a shortcoming of the hardware, or somebody's idea of a joke.
on 30 March 2010
The author told this tale of the first epidemiological study, and how it put an end to cholera in London, with such mastery of language and pacing. But then the last chapter was cobbled together by musing on the future, ruminating about potential threats to health, and making tenuous connections to John Snow's work. Still well worth reading, but the ending will ensure that it becomes dated rapidly.
The title refers to a document that John Snow, a physician, devised after the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in the 1840s. Its purpose was to help him locate the local source of the deadly virus. That information is best revealed within the riveting narrative during which empirical thinkers such as Knox were opposed by advocates of the miasma theory (i.e. that contamination is atmospheric), thoroughly discussed in Chapter 7, "All Smell Is Disease."
Steven Johnson tells a great story and, like all other great stories, this one also has a cast of memorable characters (notably Knox, Henry Whitehead, William Farr, Benjamin Hall, and Edwin Chadwick), a sequence of highly dramatic plot developments (as well as subtle ones, equally significant), conflicts that create escalating tension and increased reader interest, and eventually a climax at which time this reader (at least) felt exhausted, unkempt, and somewhat toxic.
Of special interest to me is how skillfully portrays the setting less as a metropolitan area, within which more than two million people and countless livestock are crammed, than as "a natural organic process," a living organism, an alien creature, indeed a monster. As I read the material that focuses on the human devastation, I was reminded of the whatever-it-is in the film, Predator.
Victims of the plague proceeded from a "healthy, functioning human being to a shrunken, blue-skinned cadaver in a matter of days" after Vibrio cholerae is ingested, finds its way to the small intestine, and "launches a two-pronged attack." Residents in the Broad Street area tended to be either dead or not dead yet. What was it like? "Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew there was an entirely reasonable chance you'd be dead in forty-eight hours...Imagine living with that sword of Damocles hovering above your head - every stomach pain or watery stool a potential harbinger of imminent doom."
Credit Johnson with creating a multi-disciplinary narrative (a page-turner, really) during which his reader is provided with relevant elements of history (including biography), sociology, economics, medical science, and law. Meanwhile, the outbreak "shed light on the poverty and despair of inner-city life, illuminating everyday suffering with the bright light of extraordinary despair. Whitehead had the story half right: the terrifying visibility of the outbreak did in fact sow the seeds of a cure. But it was not divine providence that drove the process. It was destiny."
on 5 May 2015
This gripping book is so much more than an historical recount. It amounts to nothing less than a manual of how statistics, cartography and empiricism overcame superstition saving us from cholera and offering the means to survive the modern perils of city living- pandemic flu, Ebola or bioterrorism.
Johnson meticulously brings the world of Victorian London to life, copiously quoting Dickens and Mayhew. Snow’s and Whitehead’s attempts to trace and prove the source of the deadly 1854 cholera outbreak becomes a page turning thriller. Along the way fitting tribute is paid to the lives of both men.
However what makes this an important book is the manner in which the lessons of Science, statistics, and local knowledge used to conquer cholera can be utilised today. The author ably draws parallels between the Victorian scavenger classes and the urban poor in modern shanty towns. He brilliantly identifies how urbanisation continues to be humanity’s greatest strength but also due to population density its greatest vulnerability.
The power of this book, like the work of Snow to whom it pays tribute, is its ‘consilient’ thinking, the bringing together of the insight offered by many different disciplines to form a fuller more holistic view of intractable human problems – past and present.
I picked up this book puzzled by the author’s degree in ‘Semiotics’ but put it down having a good understanding of what this constitutes.
on 27 July 2009
The history of a nineteenth century cholera outbreak may not sound like riveting reading, but it is utterly fascinating. The scientific detective story of the curate and the doctor who painstakingly unravel the complex web of infection, setting aside decades of mistaken theories, in order to solve the mystery, and thereby save countless lives, is told in a clear and compelling narrative. My only reservation is that the ending - which sets out the modern implications of their work (highly relevant in the face of swine flu) lacks the taut focus of the main story.
on 10 April 2011
The Ghost Map is an excellent, well-researched study of disease and dirt - subjects we are often reluctant to confront. This is remarkably shown in the urban networks sections of the book.Increasingly the media is showing us that we live in a filthy age again and face the same problems and negativity about it. Complementing this book, there is a TV series about dirt, an exhibition (well worth seeing) at the Wellcome Collection about dirt, too.The author has provided an informative but easy to read and understand book. Highly recommended.
on 18 May 2008
A really well detailed account, and interesting history of the battle with Cholera by Dr. Snow and his colleagues in Victorian London. Anyone who is considering a profession in health care or studying medicine at university, i strongly recommend this book. It manages to portray health care at the time of the epedemic with plenty of background knowledge and scientific reasoning which makes it insteresting and very informative.