Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

What do you imagine has been the most important advance in health and medicine?

The microscope? The theory of germs? Vaccinations? The discovery of DNA and genetics? Antiseptics? Anesthesia? Prenatal care? Birth control? Health insurance?

No, all of these are (pardon the expression) mice nuts. The bat balls award (Bat testes be 8.5 percent of body mass) in the health game goes to clean water. Life expectancy around the globe has be boosted more by clean water than any other contribution to public health. Clean water started in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson narrates the story of how a Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead solved the mystery of the Cholera epidemic in Soho, London in August 1854. This is Victorian England, the time of Dickens and Engels. The dominant theories of disease are bad air (miasma in Greek, malaria in Italian), weak constitutions, poor housekeeping, and loose morals. When disease struck a poor neighborhood, or a poor country (Cholera originated in India), the good citizens of Victorian London took this as an indicator of the superiority of English breeding and society.

Steven Johnson intertwines the biographies of the principal characters, 18th century politics, and the evolution of cities and science into a fascinating and informative narrative. The story line follows the the critical week from the first Cholera death to the climatic removal of the handle from the fatal public water pump a week later.

The book is fulled with details about the origins of epidemiology (The London Epidemiology Society was founded in 1850), anesthesiology (Dr. Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of her 8th child using protocols and equipment he designed and developed), and mapping (the maps of the Cholera outbreak were cartographic milestones). This mixture of detail, narrative, and history makes The Ghost Map a great read.

Following the mystery, the author appends a Conclusion, Epilogue, Author's Note, Acknowledgments, Notes on Further Reading, Page by Page Notes (Footnotes), Bibliography, and Index. Unfortunately, halfway through the "conclusion," the story is completely abandoned and the author moves to his pulpit to editorialize and pontificate on human nature, the future of technology, and anything that strikes his fancy. I recommend the first 200 pages - the remaining 90 can easily be ignored.

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