Saturday, May 31, 2008

Book review: The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson

The story of the cholera outbreak in Victorian London that led to the complete revolution - or even creation - of the modern city infrastructure. At the time of the outbreak, the city sewage system was little more than open ditches and piles, sometimes to the height of the surrounding buildings, of refuse and excrement. Contemporary medical wisdom was that disease was spread through the foul stench in the air - miasma.

Through the efforts of Dr. John Snow and the local parish curate, they were able to track the source of the outbreak to a pump in the city's fouled water system. This mapping technique for disease led to modern understanding of the importance of a clean water system, infrastructure design, sanitation, disease mapping and was even an early precursor of Google Earth and its like.

Johnson manages to keep a truly disgusting subject interesting. Although he does tend to be repetitive and descriptive (even my stomach turned a couple of times), he keeps the interest level high enough to get you past the detailed descriptions of filth and squalor.

Not for the faint of stomach, but still an interesting read.

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