Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Ghost Map

This book by Steven Johnson came to my attention recently (I think it just came out in paperback) and I immediately added it to my Amazon Wish List!

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World is a historical scientific narrative telling how Dr. John Snow traced an outbreak of cholera in working class London in 1854 to a single water pump that served all the neighborhood's residents. Previously, doctors had attributed cholera to an infectious mist (miasma theory) but Dr. Snow proves them wrong when he traces the origins of the disease to contaminated water instead (waterborne theory). Interestingly enough, though, it was another doctor, Fillipo Paccini, who connected the dots and isolated the illness-inducing bacterium in the water itself -- but his paper on the subject was ignored for thirty years.

I find this scientific/historical stuff thoroughly fascinating, and I like the way it's framed as a narrative. It's like a medical mystery, and appeals to that side of me that compulsively watches House M.D. and practices my own branch of amateur hypochondria. Particularly House-esque is this character: "An assistant curate named Henry Whitehead, who ministered to residents of Golden Square and knew the details of their lives well enough to identify the epidemic’s starting point (a sick baby, whose diapers contaminated the Broad Street well)." Doesn't that sound like House breaking and entering for a little more information?

Speaking of House, that show is getting out of control these days. It's like the writers realized its inherent campiness and just decided to run with it. Last night's episode was hilarious and more filled with improbable science than ever, and House was even more of a smartass than usual (my favorite line: "But carnival is only eight days in Bolivia!" Oh House, is there anything you don't know? I mean, you know the Portuguese word for "Brazil nut!") PLUS one of the wannabe fellows turned out to be a total psycho who faked symptoms of Polio in a patient in order to test his own theory that high doses of vitamin C will cure the disease. I love the wild abandon the show is demonstrating these days! But even I think the science is getting a little off base (wouldn't a food-related poisoning disappear after the patient stopped eating said substance?) but this guy is the source we go to for critiques of the show's sloppiest science. Crazy as it is, I still have to watch anything that deals with rare diseases.

And read: I'll definitely be getting The Ghost Map as soon as possible.


Levi Stahl said...

I can heartily recommend The Ghost Map--it's well written and interesting, with a lot of fun detail about English life and medicine of the period. I wrote about it a bit on my blog last winter.

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Spinster Aunt said...

Your post made me want to read A Journal of the Plague Year! (Yup, one book leads to another!) I also thought it was interesting how a comment on said post mentioned The Death of Innocents because it leads back to the character on House who faked the Polio tests -- I love it when things seem all interconnected-like.

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