Book Review: “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

Today, I’m reviewing more of a history book then a paranormal book. Why? Because I strongly believe that in order to participate in this field we need to understand the people we may be connecting with through investigation. “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” looks at the 1854 London cholera epidemic and traces the steps of John Snow and Henry Whitehead as they discover the cause of cholera. The book highlights the medical beliefs of the era and how cities had been addressing cholera up to this point. The reader follows the advancement of cholera through the Broad Street neighborhood while tracking the two investigators. One a man of medical science, the other a man of faith, their observations ultimately lead to one of the most important discoveries of the era and the concept of epidemic mapping. As most science of the era, discovery comes not in the lab but from many observations taken at the point of interest. Knowing the origins of cholera led to massive public health improvements and a focus on improving water sanitation. This one change ultimately saves untold numbers of people from a very quick and painful death. Johnson goes on to discuss how epidemic mapping influences modern day public health and how we may face future epidemics.

Note: this book was written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, I really enjoyed this book (as much as you can enjoy a book about a disease that causes extreme vomiting and diarrhea). I think anyone interested in the history of modern medicine or even how cholera took so many lives so quickly, would find this book informative.  

Pros: This book does a good job of letting the reader see the process of discovery for John Snow and Henry Whitehead and understand what drove them to keep looking for answers. I found the book very easy to read and was fascinated by the relentless perseverance of these men in a situation that most would flee from. The analysis of medical knowledge in the 1850’s was helpful in understanding why people would react the way they did to cholera and the initial extrapolation to modern day epidemiology was interesting.

Cons: The last couple chapters felt very repetitive as I thought the author had made his point about modern epidemics and pandemics easily. He talks about what may happen in the next epidemic and much of this can be seen in what eventually did happen during the Covid-19 response. Perhaps if I had not had the knowledge of the most recent pandemic, the last couple chapters would have felt less repetitive. He talks some bit about nuclear war which seems very much detached from the goal of this book and may have been fine to completely leave out.

Overall thoughts: I enjoyed the book, and it reminded me that science is often a process of discovery at the ground level. It reinforced the idea that field investigation is still essential to answering the big questions still before us. It also helped me understand why the Victorians were so focused on “bad air”.

You can find your own copy of this book here.

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