Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Readings in the History of Disease

After last night's post, I thought I should recommend a few good reads on the topic of epidemics and disease in early America. I also want to try out my new Amazon Associate membership. I'm not really looking to make any money (very unlikely), but I like the look of links I've seen on other blogs.

This isn't the first time I've recommended Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (2001). The best thing about this book is its broad geographical sweep. Too often, "early America" means "New England" (I'm guilty of contributing to this), but Fenn traces the epidemic from Canada to Mexico, Atlantic to Pacific, and everywhere in between. Her writing is clear and concise, making Pox Americana a great book for undergraduates and the general public.

One of my absolute favorite books about the history of disease is Jennifer Lee Carrell's The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox (2004). While some of the Amazon reviewers did not enjoy its structure, I loved the way Carrell braided together the stories of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston as both fought for inoculation. Reading her description of victims in the throes of confluent smallpox makes you marvel at what the human body can endure and (sometimes) survive.

Another good one is The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (2006) by Steven Johnson. It deals with a cholera epidemic, the miasma theory of disease, and sanitation in mid-19th-century London. It's good stuff and it sometimes reads like a thriller. I haven't had a chance to read Johnson's new book — The Invention of Air — but I'm looking forward to it.

Other books I haven't read, but am hoping to:

1 comment:

RJO said...

This is another one I've noted but not seen; IIRC the author was an MD:

Duffy, John. 1953. Epidemics in Colonial America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.