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Ghost Map Book Report Example

There are many scientific books that address the history of London, its development, and challenges. This essay seeks to provide a summary and analysis ofthe book “Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World”, written by well-known American science theorist and author Steven Johnson. The paper will examine in details the two main characters of the book – English physician John Snow and the London priest Henry Whitehead and their contribution to fighting cholera and adoption of hygienic standards in metropolises in general and in London in particular.

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In fact, the profession of physician was totally different in the past compared to nowadays. The medical professionals had neither enough knowledge of the causes, consequences and ways of treatment of many diseases nor the equipment to treat people. Also, vaccination was not researched or developed; therefore, a physician physically could not treat people during the epidemic due to a fast spread of the disease. Also, people were very religious; therefore, they considered every illness as a punishment of God. In these conditions, many people did not seek help from the doctor, but rather went to see the priest in order to treat a disease. In fact, with the technical progress, any profession nowadays will be regarded as underdeveloped and ridiculous in the future (similarly to how we now view the profession of physician in the past), especially in the long-term perspective. I think that John Snow and others, although they could live in a different place, chose that unfortunate city because they were not ignorant or passive and wanted to bring a change to the society they lived in. There are problems in each community, so it is better to make changes and improve the situation in the place of own living, instead of going elsewhere.

The role of Henri Whitehead was crucial in investigation of cholera outbreak, as without him, Snow would never have been able to prove his theory. Whitehead’s broad knowledge of the local community and excellent memory significantly helped Snow in his research. “Whitehead was the conduit that made that representation possible. Whitehead was not an expert, an official, an authority. He was a local. That was his great strength” (Johnson, 2006). In particular, he knew the details of people’s lives (for example, information about a sick baby, whose diaper polluted the well of Broad Street), which helped to identify the starting point of the epidemic. Whitehead’s social status (the profession of a priest), as well as perfect reputation also added weight to his influence over the events, as thanks to them, it was easier to convince the local authorities of the validity of the presented theory. Whitehead was effective as a researcher, as he needed to know the causes of cholera for his professional practice of the priest. People came to him, as they thought that the illness is the punishment of God. Whitehead hesitated about such explanation of cholera, therefore he needed to find the real answer to be able to help people and answer their requests. I think that his contribution to solving the mystery of cholera was equal to Snow’s, as he managed to see numerous logical chains that, ultimately, contributed to the solution to the problem.  

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Snow understood that the problem of spreading cholera was not about miasma, which was a popular misconception at that time, but about water (Quammen, 2006). However, he could not prove it, as his microscope and chemical analysis of water did not show any result. He was searching for a valid scientific method that would demonstrate the problem in practice. Through talking to the local people (especially Henry Whitehead) and through the detailed examination of death patterns in London, Snow understood that the water pump on Broad Street could pose a threat. To visualize his findings, he drew a map, where he showed with the dots the amount of dead people in the recent time and the places where they lived. It was easily visible that the greatest number of the dead was near the above-mentioned water pump. Luckily, this information was enough to convince the local authorities of his theory and to disable the pump of the well. Johnson also demonstrated several misconceptions about Snow’s actual map. The author stated that “Snow’s visual case for his waterborne theory revolved around a striking correspondence between two shapes: the shape of the outbreak area itself, and the shape of best proximity to the Broad Street pump” (Johnson, 2006). However, cholera certainly could not follow so precisely the street contours. Also, it is important to mention that the map was reproduced so many times that “copies of copies began appearing in textbooks, described erroneously as original reproductions (most of them lacked the critical diagrams)” (Johnson, 2006). When cholera waterborne theory became widely accepted, the map was regularly used, as a shorthand explanation of the theory behind the science. It was more difficult to explain the theory of microorganisms that are invisible to the human eye, than just to point to the black bars coming from the pump.

I think that the author decided to name the book “Ghost Map” as it is a wonderful symbol that encourages the readers to discover this wonderful story. Usually, when the authors name their books with the name of an illness (like “Cancer”, “Cholera”, etc.), the readers consider it too scientific, too academic and too documentary, therefore the author had to find an appropriate thought-provoking name.

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In fact, the book forced the readers to think about urbanization and its possible consequences. From one point of view, urbanization gives people better access to social facilities like education, healthcare facilities, social and cultural services. Also, it usually provides higher-income job opportunities and better social integration. At the same time, from the opposing point of view, urbanization destroys environment (especially in terms of destruction of fauna and flora, air pollution and temperature increase). In addition, due to high concentration of people, the level of crime is usually high and the diseases also spread very fast, causing an epidemic and therefore death of many people. According to my point of view, urbanization itself is not bad, however it is necessary to make it more sustainable, environmentally friendly and efficient in order to diminish the amount of potential problems. After reading the book “Ghost Map”, I started to feel more insecure about living in a city, especially in the developing world. There, due to poverty and lack of resources, the hygienic standards are not totally set, and there are many problems related to crime. In these conditions, the developed societies should do everything possible in order to help the developing world (especially in terms of improving the public health system).

To conclude, it is important to state that the book “Ghost Map: “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” is a helpful, practical and thought-provoking source of scientific historiographic and medical information. The source showed how one single person John Snow (in assistance with Henry Whitehead) changed the flow of the history, discovering the causes of and treatment for cholera and implementation of hygienic standards in metropolises. All in all, the book is highly recommended to everyone interested in scientific reading.