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The Ghost Map: How a Vicar and an Anesthesiologist Changed the World Forever

Updated on July 29, 2013

At the speech at ALA which encouraged me to check out Steven Johnson's writing, he spent a lot of time talking about the story that was the basis of this book: how John Snow, a brilliant scientist and doctor who had already been acclaimed as one of the first great anesthesiologists, set out to prove that cholera could be transmitted via water during a particularly terrible outbreak in 1854 in the Golden Square neighborhood of London, when at the time it was generally believed that all disease was transmitted via miasma (in essence, that people got sick because of bad smells). Johnson specifically made sure to include the contributions of Henry Whitehead, a local vicar who was able to provide much of the evidence that backed up Snow's theory, who is often left out of the story in accounts of the outbreak. I was intrigued enough by the story that I found this book at the library and read it as quickly as possible.

Johnson is a great writer, able to make the story suspenseful, even though the readers already know the answer to the biggest mystery of the story (cholera is in fact transmitted through befouled water). He's able to capture all of the relevant elements of the story--why the general medical community believed in the incorrect miasma theory, why Snow didn't, how important Whitehead was in both proving Snow's theory correct and in solving several problems with it, why the conditions in Golden Square caused such an awful outbreak, how this discovery revolutionized both medicine and how cities were designed, and how those changes have led to the life we all live today. Johnson is able to simultaneously make the Victorian mindset understandable, the biology of the cholera bacteria comprehensible, and the pace of the story fast-paced, all while making it look effortless.

As with his previous book that I read, "Everything Bad is Good for You," Johnson's work is heavily researched and footnoted, and contains information from many many disciplines, all while being incredibly well-written. This book is great for anyone interested in the Victorian era, medical history, or how cities get built the way they do, or even just for a great story. If you see this book, you should definitely check it out, as it is simultaneously interesting, informative, and incredibly well-written.

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