Most people are familiar with the devastating Middle Ages scourge known as the Black Death, the terrifying pandemic believed to have started in Asia that wreaked havoc across Europe during the mid-1300s. A public fascination with the plague and disease in general has resulted in some fine science writing that is both accessible and absorbing, books that transport readers to various places and times via the lens of a particularly awful illness. The titles gathered here demonstrate the impact these diseases have had on humanity, but they also highlight the key developments in science and public health that have driven down the rates of iinfection.
At the time of its publication in 1977, prolific historian William H. McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples (Anchor. 1977. ISBN 9780385121224. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780307773661) was considered an avant-garde examination of world history through the viewfinder of infectious disease and its effects on cultures and societies. Today it is often considered an influential classic of historical epidemiology. McNeill takes readers on a sweeping Grand Tour, laying out and interpreting the political, economic, and ecological ramifications of disease. While scholarly (and dense), it offers a solid foundation for those seeking a contextual overview of disease in human history.
New York Times journalist Gina Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It (Touchstone. 2001. ISBN 9780743203982. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781429979351) is marvelously accessible science writing that reads like a fast-paced adventure story. The so-called Spanish flu of 1918 was mysterious and devastating in scope, killing millions worldwide. Kolata deftly integrates passed-down family stories, contemporary accounts, and the research and reflections of medical and military historians and scientists into a compelling narrative that captures the panic and hopelessness incited by the epidemic and recounts in clear, understandable prose those scientific developments and discoveries.
In The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years (Picador. 2011. ISBN 9780312573010. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781429981170), investigative journalist Sonia Shah combines five years of international reportage with a thorough, historical overview of the persistent, tragic disease that the Renaissance Italians referred to as mala aria (“bad air”). Spread by mosquitoes, malaria has plagued people for millennia, slowing and shutting down the potential of individuals and, more largely, that of societies and economies. Shah’s approach to tackling a popular understanding of the disease weaves public policy, scientific research, and stories from health-care workers and the afflicted into an intriguing and informational tome.
Most major human diseases originate in animals, as husband and wife Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, a journalist and a veterinarian, respectively, remind us in Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (Viking. 2012. ISBN 9780670023738. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101583746). Their fascinating (and graphic) narrative of rabies, the terrifying disease of the brain, ferries the reader from antiquity to the Victorian period to modern times, discussing mythology (from werewolves to zombies), primary-source accounts of the “demonic” affliction, depictions in literature and film, and scientific findings translated from the clinical literature into comprehensible details.
Leprosy, relatively rare in 2014 and also now known by its less reactive name of Hansen’s disease, survives in history as a vehemently feared skin affliction, its victims ostracized and sometimes forcibly separated from their communities. John Tayman relates in The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai (Scribner. 2007. ISBN 9780743233019. pap. $20.99; ebk. ISBN 9781416551928) the true story of Hawaii’s infamous leper colony, to which more than 8,000 people were exiled by the U.S. government over the course of a century. With respect for his subjects and meticulous research, Tayman shares the story of this settlement and its inhabitants, some of whom still dwell on a remote cliffside on the island of Molokai. Reading as compellingly as fiction, this narrative is sadly all too real.
Perhaps it is fitting (and optimistic) to conclude with John Rhodes’s The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease (Palgrave MacMillan. 2013. ISBN 9781137278524. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781137381316). Rhodes, an acclaimed immunologist, dissects 300 years of vaccination and epidemic history beginning with Edward Jenner’s discovery of a smallpox vaccine in the late 1700s and ending with current public health crises facing a globalized world in the early 21st century. Rhodes writes for both students and scholars, and his straightforward work is clear and engrossing, with anecdotes and personality portraits interspersed with technical information.
This column was contributed by Rebecca Kennedy, Reference and Reader Services Librarian, Seattle Public Library
Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net