Non-fiction books about disease.
May 9, 2010 8:06 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good, non-fiction books about epidemiology and the history of disease (or of one outbreak of a disease). I'm especially interested in the intersection of social history, epidemiology, and intellectual history (like in Steven Johnson's fabulous The Ghost Map). Think "Erik Larson, for microbes."

There have been previous AskMes about plague novels, but I'm looking at history.

I'm going through my library's epidemiology collection very, very quickly, so I figured I'd ask Metafilter.

What I liked about the Ghost Map: it combines the best of biography (John Snow), social history (how the people of the infected neighbourhood lived), intellectual history (how Snow helped defuse the prevalent ideas of how cholera spread), and gritty disease knowledge (how one dies from cholera). The Hot Zone was how I got started on all of this, many years ago, but it's not interesting to me anymore because the entire book's hook rests on how gross ebola is, not about what ebola reveals about human behaviour.

For a non-disease example, Erik Larson's books--especially Devil in the White City--also display these traits, although I'm currently off serial killers and onto diseases. (I never thought I'd write that sentence, but there we are).

I'm a layman in all things epidemiology.
posted by flibbertigibbet to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
The Great Influenza might be up your alley. It traces the outbreak of that one specific flu outbreak.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:10 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tony Bourdain, of all people, wrote a book called Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical that you'd probably enjoy.
posted by box at 8:12 PM on May 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Alison Bashford has written extensively on epidemiology and borders—I've read her stuff in the context of mass migration, Austrailan immigration policy and nationalism. Her work's less about disease per se than the effect of disease control on the rest of public policy and on the eugenics movement, but it's still probably up your alley.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:14 PM on May 9, 2010

Foucault is a dense, unapologetically intellecutal writer, but if you can get into his stuff, I don't think there's anyone who mixes the elements you describe better than he. Take a look at this partial list of his works.

You will probably be particularly interested in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, but you could also check out Discipline and Punish.
posted by Truthiness at 8:15 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

It was published in 1995 but The Coming Plague is a great read about diseases and, if I remember correctly, repercussions from global diseases. Since it was written pre-SARS, etc it is an interesting look at what we thought then and I'm sure it has some things to say that are still valid.
posted by hepta at 8:17 PM on May 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's not about the plague, per se, but de Certeau's The Possession at Loudun is kind of about the psychological aftermath of the plague. Maybe not exactly what you're after but it blew my mind so... I'm just putting it out there.
posted by johnnybeggs at 8:19 PM on May 9, 2010

I enjoyed this one
posted by Raichle at 8:21 PM on May 9, 2010

Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice & History is a biography of the bacterium that causes Typhus fever. Written in 1935 and inspired by Sterne's Tristram Shandy, it's a brilliant and eccentric book, a true minor classic.
posted by rdc at 8:24 PM on May 9, 2010

Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill is kind of the grandaddy of this genre, dating from the 1970s.
posted by Quietgal at 8:25 PM on May 9, 2010

For a socio-political perspective on a modern plague, I strongly recommend And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.
posted by eisenkr at 8:30 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it, but hear good things about Dread, by Phillip Alcabes. He is a Professor of Urban Public Heath at Hunter College’s School of Health Sciences and in the Doctoral Public Health program at CUNY.

Described as: "A trenchant exploration of epidemic history examining how the human response to disease reveals hidden fears of social collapse, racial pollution, and moral decay."
posted by jardinier at 8:31 PM on May 9, 2010

Seconding The Coming Plague. Also The Barbary Plague, by Marilyn Chase.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:33 PM on May 9, 2010

If you do read And the Band Played On, please take it all with a huge grain of salt. A whole salt shaker, even.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:34 PM on May 9, 2010

The American Plague is a fantastic read about yellow fever and the eventual treatment of it. Really a fascinating read.
posted by nursegracer at 8:35 PM on May 9, 2010

I believe that Richard Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910 might be interesting for you. Haven't read it myself yet, but I think it's along the lines you're interested in.

The first chapter of this book by Timothy Mitchell, which I actually have read, is entitled 'Can the mosquito speak?' It's about the role of the anopheles mosquito and malaria in 20th-century Egyptian history. Great, in a head-spinny kind of way.
In the summer of 1942 two forces invaded Egypt, and each provoked a decisive battle. Only one of the two was human, so only that one is remembered, although the casualties in the other battle were greater.
He also references a book that might interest you, Nancy Gallagher's Egypt's Other Wars: Epidemics and the Politics of Public Health.

All of these are academic history books. From some of his other stuff, I know that Evans definitely writes in a way that is accessible to people who aren't history grad students. Mitchell writes lucidly but his stuff also qualifies as dense and unapologetically intellectual--though that chapter is, as these things go, readable (and great for thinking with). Can't comment on Gallagher, I'm afraid.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:39 PM on May 9, 2010

I went through a phase where I read a bunch of disease books. Sad to say that while The Hot Zone started me on this path, it's now generally considered more fiction than truth.

Some that are in my collection (in order of how much I enjoyed them):

- The Great Influenza. Also mentioned above, but I'm listing it again because it really is that good!

- The River. It's supposed to be about the history of HIV, but the author's favorite theory (infection via the polio vaccine trials) means he also covers in detail a lot of information about the race to cure polio. However, recent research suggests that the polio vaccine was not the initial vector for HIV... but I think the well researched history of HIV and polio still makes this book worth reading.

- The Speckled Monster. A great history of small pox both in the new world and old. It covers some of the heros of the epidemics, and also the spread of varriolation and, later, vaccination.

- Plague. About the race to find the source of the bubonic plague.

- Anthrax: the Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak. This one is on my shelves, but I vaguely remember reading it. So not a recommendation, but perhaps something to look at.

I also borrowed and read parts of The Coming Plague, but I remember it as being a little too dry for my tastes.
posted by sbutler at 9:04 PM on May 9, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Is on my personal reading list but I have not read it yet.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:04 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just popping in to second that Typhoid Mary and Dread are good reads - they're both about social responses to contagion, with Bourdain telling a personal story while Alcabes goes for the bigger picture.

What an interesting ask! I hope I'll get a chance to check some of these books out.
posted by Joad at 9:23 PM on May 9, 2010

I third The Great Influenza. Great, great book.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:25 PM on May 9, 2010

2nding Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Read it twice, very good.

Anything By Jared Diamond is likely to be good. His new book is Collapse, the fall of civilization. I've not read it yet, but I guarantee there were plenty of civilizations that fell due to microbes so that's GOT to be covered.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 9:33 PM on May 9, 2010

Best answer: The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866
About cholera. In the US. In, you know, the 1800s.
posted by phunniemee at 9:36 PM on May 9, 2010

Paul Offit's book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases might be a nice addition since it focuses on diseases prevented.
posted by vespabelle at 10:01 PM on May 9, 2010

I found Oliver Sacks's "The Island of the Colorblind" to be engaging.

I also just read Molly Caldwell Crosby's "The American Plague: The untold story of the yellow fever, the epidemic that shaped our history." Much of the content was new to me (and fascinating), although the writing was sometimes a wee bit hyberbolic for my taste.
posted by janell at 10:05 PM on May 9, 2010

Elizabeth Pisani's The Wisdom of Whores. Definitely as much about the players in HIV worldwide (epidemiologists, bureaucrats, victims, etc.) as it is about the disease.
posted by andrewpendleton at 10:09 PM on May 9, 2010

I really enjoyed The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death. Tons of information about the disease itself, first-hand accounts of the plague, information about the social structures that changed because of it... It was fascinating.
posted by MeghanC at 11:27 PM on May 9, 2010

I enjoyed The Black Death by Philip Ziegler. It has a unique focus on the difficulty of tracking deaths from the disease, and has an interesting section describing a fictional town to exemplify the effects of the Plague. The author also writes with a dry wit (after quoting a clergyman who called the Black Death a "marvelous remedy" for the decadence of the time, Ziegler calls him "a bit of a conservative").
posted by mnemonic at 11:31 PM on May 9, 2010

The History of Syphilis
posted by benzenedream at 11:42 PM on May 9, 2010

I read these books.

- I suggest books by Berton Roueche. He wrote interesting books about epidemiological mysteries back in the fifties. My favorite was The Incurable Wound [my review].
- Similar book is The Case of the Frozen Addicts by J William Langston [my review].
- There are a lot of great Flu books and I enjoyed Flu by Gina Kolata [my review]
- Another one that I don't often see on lists like these is New Guinea Tapeworms & Jewish Grandmothers by Robert Desowitz [my review] which is all about parasites as disease vectors

I have always wanted to read Cold Wars: The Fight against the Common Cold by David Tyrrell, Michael Fielder but haven't yet.

Lastly, not about diseases per se but about the history of medicine is The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas who also wrote Lives of a Cell. He was a doctor, his father was a doctor and it's a beautifully written book about how medicine evolved as a science over the past eighty years or so.
posted by jessamyn at 11:47 PM on May 9, 2010

Parasite Rex : Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures by Carl Zimmer has lots on this topic, especially since the author argues convincingly that most disease-causing bacteria can be seen as parasites. It focuses heavily on the co-evolution of parasites and their hosts, and the consequences of thereof.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 1:48 AM on May 10, 2010

I also went through a CDC reading phase. I started off with The Ghost Map as well. I particularly liked:

- flu by Gina Kolata (mentioned above)
- The American Plague (about yellow fever - also mentioned above)
- Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn, which is about smallpox in late 18th C America, specifically the epidemic of 1775-1782, which coincided with the Revolutionary War.
- Polio by David Oshinsky, which won the Pulitzer in 2006, is a great overview of the polio epidemics and the quest for the cure in the US
posted by clerestory at 4:17 AM on May 10, 2010

Paul Farmer's AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame is an excellent, eye-opening read
posted by torisaur at 5:02 AM on May 10, 2010

Not yet mentioned:
Pox: Genius, Madness, And The Mysteries Of Syphilis by Deborah Hayden (overview of the disease, and then looking at the case histories of various historical personnages who might have had it.)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is about Ebola. Some of his essays also touch on related topics.
posted by modernhypatia at 8:55 AM on May 10, 2010

Seconding Zinsser.
posted by charlesv at 9:09 AM on May 10, 2010

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer - seems like a genuinely good guy and a good writer.
posted by Sophie1 at 9:20 AM on May 10, 2010

Seconding Berton Roueche.
posted by neuron at 10:15 AM on May 10, 2010

The Malaria Capers was a fascinatings read, especially considering the disease's cost (in productivity) and current spread.
posted by subajestad at 10:20 AM on May 10, 2010

Bigger picture can be found in the excellent The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: a medical history of humanity. If it doesn't really sound like your thing, at least leaf through the bibliography.

Seconding Rats, Lice & History
posted by shothotbot at 6:27 PM on May 10, 2010

Third to Guns, Germs and Steel.
posted by talldean at 6:50 PM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: I honestly didn't expect this many answers!

I love you guys, this'll get me through what's looking like a long summer!
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:30 PM on May 11, 2010

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