Monday, November 30, 2009

Epidemic in London

The Ghost Map
by Steven Johnson

But however secure and well-regulated civilized life may become, bacteria, Protozoa, viruses, infected fleas, lice, ticks, mosquitoes, and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce when neglect, poverty, famine, or war lets down the defenses.
- Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice & History

Where do you find the conjunction of epidemiology, mathematics, anthropology, and Victorian history? You do in this enlightening book, The Ghost Map, subtitled "The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World". The subtitle is not an overstatement for this is one of the best books about the history of science that I have read. Steven Johnson provides the details of an episode in the improvement of scientific understanding that makes you wonder that such improvement ever occurs. Just as important as the scientific story are the connections the author makes between it and the history of the growth of cities with the impact of disease and its control on the possibilities for further growth.

"Cities are tremendous engines of wealth creation and culture, but the political stereotype is that they're leeching off the mainstream and the countryside," Johnson said. "Actually, the opposite is true."

The background of certain key contributors, both medical and political, along with such contextual information as the history and literature of the times, 1850's London, adds to the wealth of information that makes the story of this Cholera epidemic worth reading. I enjoyed each chapter as I learned about an important chapter in the history of science.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, New York. 2006.

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