THE GHOST MAPSteven Johnson
The story of how the anaesthetist John Snow discovered the source of the spread of cholera in the notorious 1854 outbreak in London

The Ghost map charts the outbreak of the terrifying cholera epidemic that engulfed London in 1854, and the investigations of anaesthetist Dr. John Snow who lived near Broadstreet in Soho. On the basis of the current thinking that disease was spread by ‘foul airs’ or miasmas, he could not understand why some families caught cholera, whilst their immediate neighbours did not. By mapping the outbreak he traced the source of the disease in Soho to the water pump. This case was vital in establishing the effect of sanitation on public health, and in proving that diseases such as cholera and typhoid were carried by water.

When I read this some years ago I could never have believed that we might be facing a similar threat.  Although Covid-19 is a virus, and cholera is a bacterial disease, the link between poor housing and social deprivation with the spread of the disease are eerily parallel as are the tensions between ‘the science’ and ‘the politics’.  It is a about how huge populations live together and how cities can kill.


A story of scientific rivalry and the discovery of the prehistoric world

This is the story of the bitter rivalry between two men. Gideon Mantell uncovered giant bones in a Sussex quarry, became obsessed with the lost world of the reptiles and was driven to despair. Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist, coined the term ‘dinosaur’ (from the Greek – terrible/mighty lizard) and secured for himself unrivalled international acclaim.

This takes the story on from Tracey Chevallier’s novel about Mary Anning – ‘Remarkable Creatures’ (see Historical Novels).  I found the story of the discoveries fascinating, but even more striking and sad was the despicable class prejudice – with Gideon Mantell the son of a poor boot maker versus Richard Owen, privileged son of a rich draper, who had made his money trading with the West Indies.  Owen allegedly stole Mantell’s discoveries, renamed them and claimed them for himself.  His statue used to be in pride of place in the great hall of the Natural History Museum, but was replaced in 2009 by a statue of Darwin.


Three books that chart the lesser known adventurers of the 16th and 17th centuries

NATHANIEL’S NUTMEG – An account of the violent struggle between the English and Dutch for control of the world supply of nutmeg in the early 17th century.

BIG CHIEF ELIZABETH – Relates the early attempts by Elizabethan adventurers to colonise the North American continentpa.

SAMURAI WILLIAM – The life of an Elizabethan adventurer who was shipwrecked in Japan in 1600, and the ultimately doomed attempts of the English East India Company to forge profitable trading links with Japan.

These books read more like adventure fiction and are real page-turners.  Yet to quote the Sunday Times ‘His research is impeccable and his narrative reads like a modern-day Robert Louis Stevenson novel’  If like me you love world travel, these books give a vivid history of some of the more exotic places around the world….making me want to pack my bags and travel again…..oh one day!


A book about the birth of the industrial revolution and the characters involved

The Lunar Society was a group of 18c amateur experimenters, free thinking scientists and industrialists including Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt and Matthew Boulton.  They met monthly on the Monday night nearest the full moon, as the extra light made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting.  They freely joked about themselves as ‘lunatics’….but of course they were far from it, kick-starting the Industrial Revolution, which was ultimately to lead to Britain dominating the world in the 19c.

As with all Jenny Uglow’s books she wears her academic prowess lightly, which results in a thoroughly readable, informative and in places amusing book.


The adventures of Alexander von Humboldt – the lost hero of science

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) the Prussian polymath, author and explorer is the great lost scientist – more things are named after him than anyone else. He transformed our understanding of physical geography and meteorology, and spent his life trying to bind together the workings of the Earth and ultimately the cosmos. He travelled across Russia, through the jungles of South America and to the Himalayas.  He even predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and inspired many scientists and explorers including Charles Darwin’.

This is one of the best biography/cum travel books I have ever read, and I was amazed we know so little about him in this country.  He was a remarkable and intrepid man, and I loved the tales of his travels and his dogged determination to get those in positions of influence to listen to him.


The story of one of the ships that perished on the fateful John Franklin expedition to find the North West Passage

This book is in many ways a biography of HMS Erebus launched in 1826 as a war ship. Aptly named Erebus – in classical mythology the son of Chaos – she was to become the pioneer of both polar regions, venturing further south than any ship had ever been.  But she was most famous as one of two ships on the fateful voyage to discover the North West Passage, led by Sir John Franklin.  In September 2014 marine archaeologists discovered her on the Arctic seabed.  As you would expect from Michael Palin, this is a very entertaining read yet informative read.

What I most enjoyed about this book, apart from the vivid descriptions of life on board such a ship…was the Victorians’ incredible thirst for discovery, not to mention the bravery of the men sailing in uncharted and treacherous waters.  But on the darker side was the arrogance towards the indigenous population, who had been totally ignored when they gave vital information, which the 2014 discovery of the Erebus wreck proved to have been correct.


How the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science

This is a hard book to summarise. So I quote ‘ conceived as a relay race of scientific discoveries, the book proposes a radical vision of science before Darwin, and the startling impact of the discoveries on great writers and poets such as Mary Shelley, Coleridge, Keats and Byron’.  Five scientists/discoverers dominate the book, Joseph Banks, William Herschel and his sister Caroline, Humphrey Davy and the explorer Mungo Parks.

This is quite a meaty read, but what I loved about it was the cross over between science and literature.  Richard Holmes is primarily a biographer, so you get a fascinating insight into the lives and passions of both the scientists and the writers inspired by discoveries such as electricity, astronomy, chemistry. It is a book that doesn’t necessarily need to be read cover to cover.  Its 400+ pages are divided into just 10 chapters, which are themes in their own right e.g ‘Joseph Banks in Paradise’, ‘Herschel on the Moon’, ‘Davy on the Gas’.  So you can pick it up and put it down without losing the thread.

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