awesome public health book (review): The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson (read by Alan Sklar)

epidemiology, public health, urban planning, amateur activism, all rolled into a tasty narrative

“You and I may not live to see the day…and my name may be forgotten when it comes; but the time will arrive when great outbreaks of cholera will be things of the past; and it is the knowledge of the way in which the disease is propagated which will cause them to disappear.”  (John Snow to Henry Whitehead, p181)

I had heard the story about how John Snow essentially invented epidemiology by tracing cholera deaths to the Broad Street Pump in London, after which he removed the pump handle and the epidemic ended.  Johnson shows us that so much more was at work.  While John Snow was trying to figure out the source of the epidemic, a local clergyman was doing his own research, and the health board leaders were doing research to support their own – faulty – claims about airborne causes.  Johnson demonstrates not only the process of discovery but the challenging politics around trying to convince key leaders to remove the pump handle.  Just as interesting are the implications for public health and city planning even up until the present.  Johnson creates a very human, passionate narrative around all of this non-fiction, filled with nuggets (as when John Snow administered Queen Elizabeth’s anesthesia for one of her childbirths).  I completely recommend this important book: It wasn’t a pure page-turner, but it was interesting and it felt important.  Another great public health related book, written for younger readers, is An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy.  Ghost Map captures much more of the interconnectedness of the different sectors of society, though.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook narrated by Alan Sklar.  Good narration.

Note on objectionable content: Occasional non-Sunday School language when referring to London’s problem of disposing of human excrement.

Here is an excerpt from the New York Times Sunday Book Review:

His book is a formidable gathering of small facts and big ideas, and the narrative portions are particularly strong, informed by real empathy for both his named and his nameless characters, flawed only sporadically by portentousness and small stylistic lapses. … Johnson’s account of the 1854 epidemic, along with the meditation on cities that he extrapolates from it, doesn’t need to call attention to its own cleverness. “The Ghost Map” is elegantly sufficient, without that, to get readers to do some thinking on their own. – David Quammen, A Drink of Death, New York Times Sunday Book Review, 12 Nov 2006.

2 thoughts on “awesome public health book (review): The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson (read by Alan Sklar)”

  1. I’m glad you liked this- I enjoyed it thoroughly. Last Wednesday in one of my classes we talked about epidemiology, and it was really nice to be able to tell a little more of the story than you get from the textbook. I haven’t read the Yellow Fever book, but I’m going to put it on my list.

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