With a New Chapter and Updated Epilogue on Coronavirus
A Financial Times Best Health Book of 2019 and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
"Honigsbaum does a superb job covering a century’s worth of pandemics and the fears they invariably unleash." —Howard Markel, MD, PhD, director of the Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan
How can we understand the COVID-19 pandemic? Ever since the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, scientists have dreamed of preventing such catastrophic outbreaks of infectious disease. Yet despite a century of medical progress, viral and bacterial disasters continue to take us by surprise, inciting panic and dominating news cycles. In The Pandemic Century, a lively account of scares both infamous and less known, medical historian Mark Honigsbaum combines reportage with the history of science and medical sociology to artfully reconstruct epidemiological mysteries and the ecology of infectious diseases. We meet dedicated disease detectives, obstructive or incompetent public health officials, and brilliant scientists often blinded by their own knowledge of bacteria and viruses—and see how fear of disease often exacerbates racial, religious, and ethnic tensions. Now updated with a new chapter and epilogue.
By focusing on nine major pandemics, from the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak to the 2015 Zika eruption, science journalist Honigsbaum (A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics) explores what has been learned about combating deadly disease over the past century. He offers a mixture of gripping storytelling and insightful science as he dissects the causes of and responses to each of these medical disasters. Whether it's plague in Los Angeles in 1924, Legionnaires' disease in Philadelphia in 1976, or the worldwide SARS outbreak in 2003, Honigsbaum argues that several important factors typically accompany pandemics. First, officials often mislead the public about what is actually occurring. Second, once the media catches on, it sensationalizes the outbreak, spreading panic. Third, medical researchers often "become prisoners of particular paradigms and theories of disease causation," causing them to ignore impending threats. In today's world, he argues, pandemics will likely be a growing problem, because human activity, from global warming-linked emissions to increased international travel, helps "microbes to occupy new ecological niches and spread to new places." Despite all the problems he exposes, Honigsbaum also demonstrates that scientists have responded with increasing rapidity to each outbreak. Alternately chilling and optimistic, Honigsbaum's reporting on a recurrent public health issue deserves wide attention.