Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series by Skip Desjardin


AuthorSkip Desjardin
TitleSeptember 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series
Publication Info: Regnery History (2018)
Summary/Review:

It’s a running joke that the Boston news media will try to find the Boston angle to any major news story.  The thesis of this book is that Boston was essentially the center of world events for the month of September 1918, and in many ways Desjardin is not exaggerating.

The 1918 World Series became famous for being the Boston Red Sox last championship for 86 years (after winning 5 of the first 15 World Series).  But the World Series that year is remarkable for other reasons.  First, it came at the end of a shortened season.  As part of the work or fight edict from the US government, Major League Baseball agreed to end the season at Labor Day, with the Red Sox and the Cubs given an extra couple of weeks to complete the World Series.  Baseball was then to be suspended for the remainder of the war, and when the World Series ended on September 11th, no one knew the armistice would occur exactly two months later.  The war also depressed enthusiasm for the World Series with a low turnout in both ballparks.  The players concern of getting the smallest bonus ever offered to World Series participants combined the uncertainty of future employment lead them to strike briefly before one of the games.

The first World War lies heavily over this book as the Wilson government heavily encouraged all-out participation by recruiting and dedicating the homefront to the war effort.  One of the first American war heroes, the flying ace David Putnam of Jamaica Plain, died over Germany on September 12.  The same day the American forces under General John Pershing began the three day offensive at Saint-Mihiel which included the Yankee Division, primarily made up of New Englanders.  This was the first time American divisions lead by American officers took part in an offensive and the successful battle gained respect of the French and British, while making Germany realize their hopes for victory were growing slim.

The War also played a part in spreading the Great Influenza across continents and oceans.  The flu made it’s first outbreak in the US in Boston at the end of August 1918 and by the early days of September it was infecting – and killing – great numbers of sailors at the Commonwealth Pier and a great number of soldiers at Camp Devens in Ayer.  Patriotic events like the Labor Day Parade helped spread the flu to the civilian population.  The official response tended towards prioritizing keeping morale high for the war effort rather than reporting the actual deadliness of the disease, and military officers repeatedly stated the worst was past even as the number of deaths in the ranks increased.  The flu would burn through Massachusetts by the end of September while having an even more deadly October in the rest of the US in places like Philadelphia.

I’ve long thought that the period circa 1918-1919 in Boston is an historic era uniquely packed with significant and strange events.  Desjardin proves that just picking one month from that period provides the material for a compelling historical work.

Recommended booksFlu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata and Red Sox Century by Glenn Stout
Rating: ***1/2