The Ghost Map is written by Steven Johnson, author of the national bestsellers Everything Bad Is Good for You and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, as well as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate.
The Ghost Map takes place in the summer of 1854. A devastating cholera outbreak seizes London just as it is emerging as a modern city. Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion had been dismissed by the scientific community, is spurred to intense action when the people in his neighborhood begin dying. When he creates the map that traces the pattern of outbreak back to its source, Dr. Snow didn’t just solve the most pressing medical riddle of his time. He ultimately established a precedent for the way modern city-dwellers, city planners, physicians, and public officials think about the spread of disease and the development of the modern urban environment.
1. How does the author make London a character of the book?
2. Has information literacy improved on the Web compared to 1854?
3. How does Johnson create suspense?
4. The Ghost Map is filled with historical and scientific tangents—. How do these enrich the storytelling?
5. How did Whitehead’s neighborhood knowledge help solve the case?
6. The profession of a physician was clearly a very different one in 1854 than it is now, particularly as John Snow practiced it. What do you see as the major differences?
7. What were some of the factors that contributed to the miasma theory?
8. How was the Board of Health both a positive and negative force as London evolved into a modern city?
9. Would you have chosen to live in London during the Victorian Era?
10. In his epilogue, Johnson posits that our survival as a “city-planet” relies on our willingness to embrace science and improve public health systems in the developing world. What do you see as the role of developed societies in this scenario? How do high profile philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates fit into the picture?
The Ghost Map was a thoroughly researched and skillfully written book. The theme was appropriate for this time when we are in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet there were differences that stood out. The size of the affected area was just a few blocks of London in The Ghost Map while the whole world is involved in the case of COVID – 19 today. The main similarity was that both potentially fatal events can be controlled by limiting transmission. In one it is air and the other water.
The problem in the Cholera epidemic was that the researchers who were trying to piece together evidence to determine the way the disease was transmitted were blocked by the authorities. The prevailing opinion was that Cholera was being spread through the highly unpleasant foul atmosphere called miasma. No amount of contrary evidence swayed those in charge of public health.
In The Ghost Map the area of concern affects a concentrated population and the offending organism is a newly discovered bacterium compared to a virus, today’s pathogen. The researchers in The Ghost Map had a special challenge. The only sure fire “treatment” for cholera is prevention because it acts rapidly and can be managed by supportive measures not always available and as a last resource, good luck. To block transmission the first challenge was to locate the source. In the current pandemic we know that the virus is airborne, and we know that the virus once it is established can spread rapidly and broadly through the air between people and contaminated surfaces.
The book reminded us of the importance of boiling water when there is concern about contamination. Recently we read about this being done in Texas in the wake of widespread power outages.
Living conditions, such as including animals in the household in some societies played a role in sanitation in the past. (It is common for a dog to sleep at the foot on my bed today with no evidence of harm). Also mentioned was the role rivers played in sewage, something that affects our lives today. In the book the Thames could be a ghastly affair in places.
The book had heroes who were dedicated to finding the causes but different in their approach. There were villains who hid behind the armor of bureaucracy thwarting the efforts of the dedicated researchers.
We all learned a lot and for the most part readers enjoyed the book.
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