Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What I'm Reading Now-The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern Worldby Steven Johnson-In 1854 cholera swept through the Soho district in London, killing hundreds of people in a matter of days. Popular theories at the time blamed miasma (bad air) or the weak constitutions and filthy living conditions of the lower classes for these deaths; but the Reverend Whitehead, who attended many of these deaths, noticed that class and cleanliness seemed to have nothing to do with who was dying. Cholera appeared to be an equal-opportunity killer. At the same time, Dr. Snow, who was an expert in anesthesia and had done many experiments with vaporous substances like ether and chloroform, thought that the whole miasma theory was a bunch of bunk. He suspected that cholera was spread via the water supply and set out to prove his theory.

Dr. Snow was up against some strong opposition, mainly the head honcho of the health department who was an adamant miasmatist (?). In an effort to clear the air of London, this guy whose name I can't remember (I'll call him Bob the Killer) decided that all the cesspits and sewers of London could no longer be allowed to stagnate and foul the air with their deadly smells. Good thinking Bob the Killer-stagnate, overflowing cesspits are nasty, nasty things! To remedy this, they would all drain into the Thames, which happened to supply most of London's drinking water. Bad, bad Bob the Killer! (Some of these details might be slightly off-I've already returned the book to the library and I'm finding that my memory for details has deteriorated rapidly since high school-but the general gist is correct.)

Anyway, Dr. Snow and the Reverend Whitehead were able to work together in a remarkably effective manner to determine not only the source of the outbreak but also to establish a new theory of epidemiology. Bob the Killer drowned in a cesspit, complaining the entire time of the dangerous stink. I'm just kidding. I don't remember what happened to Bob the Killer, but I think he died spouting miasmatic bunk.

I enjoyed this book, but then I like stuff about cholera and the plague and all sorts of fun things like that. This book definitely has a pretty high gross-out factor though, so if you have a low tolerance for talk of poo and sewage and such, you might want to avoid this one. I thought Johnson did a good job of explaining how and why London ended up in the state that it was in-millions of people crammed into a small space with no effective way of handling all of their waste is the short answer. It was also an interesting look at cities and how the very thing that makes them susceptible to epidemics-lots of people in close proximity to one another-also makes them the ideal setting for problem solving and innovation, the type of problem solving that can help us avoid epidemics in the future. I also found the "scientific" theories and psychology of the day quite interesting. While it's very easy for me to sit here at my computer and mock Bob the Killer from the distant 21st century, I can see where he was coming from, and I wonder what theories we have today that people will look back on 150 years from now and go, "Whaaaaaa....?"


Heather J. said...

If you liked this book you should read Imperfect Lens. It's a historical fiction (based on fact) novel about the scientists who studies a cholera epidemic in Egypt. It's a FASCINATING read. The cholera germ is presented almost as a character - I loved it!

And in reference to the comment on my blog about the WWII reading challenge, I'm so glad you mentioned that book! I'd heard of it years ago but forgotten all about it - it is going on my tbr list now. Thanks!

Dreamybee said...

Thanks, Heather, I'll add it to my list. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds cholera epidemics fascinating!