Summer Reading Challenge – The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map
The Ghost Map
by Steven Johnson

A Book in a Genre You Typically Don’t Read

3 book marks1 half bookmark

I chose this book to fit my summer challenge to read from a genre I don’t typically visit.  The book was required summer reading for my son last year as he prepared for his freshman year of college.

In the summer of 1854, in the Soho neighborhood of London, a baby girl became sick.  Her mother took care of her as well as she could, soaked her diapers in a tub and dumped the water in their front-yard cesspool.  A short distance away, neighbors pumped their drinking water from the Broad Street pump, known throughout town for supplying the best and cleanest well water.  On hot summer days, people from other neighborhoods went out of their way to get the cool, refreshing water from Broad Street.

Sadly, the baby girl died and within days, more and more people from the neighborhood fell ill and died.  Panic set in down the blocks as entire families were wiped out.  Although this deadly illness known as cholera had hit other parts of the country and world, no one knew how it spread.

It may seem obvious to readers today, but over a hundred and fifty years ago, people weren’t thinking about contaminated water.  In fact, officials and medical experts were obsessed with the miasma theory, the belief that all diseases were transmitted through the air.

The Ghost Map is the story of how two very different men investigated the cholera epidemic separately, and how they eventually met and convinced officials that the water from the Broad Street pump was making people sick.  Henry Whitehead was a popular clergyman and John Snow was a prominent doctor.  Both men were driven to understand why people were getting sick.  Snow was convinced the water was contaminated.  But it wasn’t simply a matter of testing the water. The technology didn’t exist.  In fact, the Broad Street water actually looked cleaner than water from other pumps in the city.  Over at St. Luke’s Church, Whitehead knew the people in his neighborhood better than anyone and he worked tirelessly to serve them and understand why they were getting sick.  When the two men eventually met, they collaborated to prove Snow’s theory.  The result was a map, connecting the neighborhood’s deaths to the Broad Street pump.

I enjoyed the book for its historical content and also because it reads a bit like a mystery, making it an interesting and somewhat casual read.  With all the references to the ghost map, however, except for the cover, I was surprised that the book didn’t actually include the final, convincing map.  The author also meanders a bit, especially at the end, as he finishes with a somewhat subjective view about why city dwellers are better, more cultured, more sophisticated and actually healthier than simple country folk.

Overall, however, it was an interesting and informative read.  It’s hard to believe that people didn’t initially consider drinking water as the cause of many illnesses, but it’s amazing to see how innovative doctors, city officials and ordinary citizens were without the advantage of technology.

Follow along as I work my way through my 16 in 16 Challenge!

Book 1 – A Book You Can Finish in a Day:  The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner

Thanks for visiting – come back soon


10 thoughts on “Summer Reading Challenge – The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

    1. He said he thought it was pretty good. They had to meet during orientation and discuss the book so I’m sure he was glad he read it! I’d say it would be a good book for your son because there’s a lot about medicine in it. Dr. Snow made some groundbreaking discoveries during that time. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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