Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Non-fiction - "The Ghost Map"

This is a short history of the cholera epidemic that hit London in 1854, written by Steve Johnson. The bulk of the story is how Dr. John Snow with some indirect assistance of Rev. Henry Whitehead, managed to prove Snow's theory that cholera is a water-borne disease. This last fact was not known at the time, in fact the germ-theory of disease was not yet born, and the prevaling view was that sickness was cause by bad air or bad vapors.

Some time after the outbreak of the epidemic, Dr. Snow created a map that showed where people got sick in relation to the Broad Street pump - a popular water pump that was contaminated with cholera germs. This map, along with the papers that the doctor wrote eventually turned the tide against the idea that cholera spread through the air. This was the "Ghost Map" from the title.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book were descriptions of what life was like in 1850s London. You can be sure that it smelled really bad. The waste recylcing system consisted of people who waded through the sewage to find the useful bits. Among them were "bone-pickers", "nightt-soil men", "rag-pickers" and others. You could actually make a living collecting dog poop and selling it to hide tanners.

The actual writing in the book is somewhat disjoined. It jumps from the story of the epidemic to some comments about evolution of cities to some biological facts about cholera. I would have liked a more linear story of Dr. Snow's work and how he came to the conclusion that cholera was waterborne.

It it interesting to think that by that time the microscope has already been invented and some scientists actually observed the cholera bacteria, yet no one connected it with the actual sickness.


Post a Comment

<< Home