"The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson. A Review

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern WorldThe Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With thousands of reviews on this book infesting the cyber-market (it has been out since 2006), I'll simply address what I found enjoyable and informative about the book. Steven Johnson, author of eleven books, host of a PBS series, and podcaster, takes an all-too-easily-forgotten moment in epidemiological history and narrates it with intrigue and allure. The author has masterfully crafted an historical event into a highly readable novella.

It's summer 1854; the place is the Soho district of London; and the main actors are Doctor John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead, with the principle role played by none other than the virtuoso, Vibrio Cholerea (cholera). The tale unfolds in a city crammed with 2 million people whose sanitary and drinking-water infrastructure makes one's skin crawl, and a sickly infant who had contracted cholera from no-one-knows-where. Here the the story line explodes leaving a casualty list of 616 people expiring in 11 days, as well as bringing about the end of one scientific hypothesis on how diseases spread, while elevating a new theory, which has prevailed and morphed to this day.

Johnson artfully weaves into the narrative side notes and applications that keep the story both informative and interesting. The final two chapters draw out the author's own perspectives on evolution, population growth, urbanization and inoculations. At times there is an almost giddy anticipation of progress. Two unfortunate aspects of his rapturous forecasts is how he delights in lowering birthrates (Peter Zeihan has recently shown the economic and international hardships these reduced birthrates are wrecking on the global scene), and how he places the scientific theory of Intelligent Design next to nuclear detonations and lowered public health spending as major saboteurs undermining his nearly euphoric Utopian perspective on the future of humankind (255). As kids and Millennials say today, "meh."

"The Ghost Map" was a fascinating read, and just the right thing for my leisure time. If you're interested in history or epidemiology or simply want to have something different, this volume is a keeper. In fact, it would make an excellent outside assignment for High School and College classes dealing with the philosophy of science and how theories change (it puts some flesh to the bones of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions"). I highly recommend the book.


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