The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson is described better by its subtitle: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic– And How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Set in 1854, it describes the path of cholera in London and the impact it had on the modern world. Johnson artfully describes the incredible growth of this city, the politics of sanitation, the views of science, and the effects of the disease on the individual. He manages to put seemingly unrelated events, ideas, history (and prehistory), science, and politics together to describe the impact of civilization and disease. The main character is John Snow, the scientist who tracked down the source of the outbreak and fought against the miasma theory of disease, where “all smell is disease”.
The Ghost Map was a thrilling page-turner, until the conclusion, which was repetitive and dry. But you could probably read the book and skip the conclusion and think it great!
Here’s some fun things:
“Our bones themselves are the result of a recycling scheme pioneered by natural selection billions of years ago. All nucleated organisms generate excess calcium as a waste product. Since at least the Cambrian times, organisms have accumulated those calcium reserves, and put them to good use: building shells, teeth, skeletons. Your ability to walk upright is due to evolution’s knack for recycling its toxic waste.” pg.6
“The dramatic increase of people available to populate the new urban spaces of the Industrial Age may have had one other cause: tea. The population growth during the first half of the eighteenth century neatly coincided with the mass adoption of tea as the de facto national beverage…Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases…The explosion of tea drinking in the late 1700s was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust.” pg. 95
“The search for unpolluted drinking waster is as old as civilization itself…The solution was to drink alcohol…Whatever health risks were posed by beer (and later wine) in the early days of agrarian setlements were more than offset by alcohol’s antibacterial properties. Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties” pg. 103