Monday, February 8, 2016

The Ghost Map: the Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

genre: non-fiction

Cholera is not a part of my life.  It never has touched my personal experience in any tangible way.  I'm lucky that I live in a sanitary and sweet-smelling space - the complete opposite of the world that Londoners were living in during the summer of 1854.  At this time, cesspools and a putrid-smelling and filthy Thames river meant that clean drinking water was somewhat hard to come by. It might have looked clean, but the human eye was obviously unable to see the microbes floating within, ready to strike.  When Cholera made it into the water on Broad Street, within days hundreds were dead and it took two special amateur investigators to not only determine how cholera spread from one person to another, but how to curb the tide.

I LOVE disease stories.  My sister the epidemiologist is always recommending books about how diseases are discovered and investigated and it is fascinating to try and imagine a world in which there is no germ theory, where people truly believe that smells actually can make you deathly ill and vaccines do not exist.  This is an incredibly readable story, a tale of not only disease investigation but also social history and the personalities of a doctor and a priest that used creativity and critical thinking to turn a stack of statistics and narratives into a defined path of contagion.   We also spend time learning about urban sprawl itself, it's benefits and shortfalls, how millions of people living in proximately to each other can affect our health.  Yes, it's nasty. We are talking about waste and filth and people who are living in the actual dung heaps of London life.  But it was reality for generations of people and their lives deserve to be documented.  As a history and a mystery, this story is at the literal heart of modern-day epidemiology and I was fascinated.

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