Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, by Irwin W. Sherman
I happened to see this book in the collection of a fellow Legacy Teacher named Hanna, who is teaching Health & Hygiene and using this book. So, I asked her if I could read it, and she was surprised I got to reading it so quickly. At any rate, I told her that I did not like to read books without asking permission first. And so, she gave me her permission to read it.
And, truth be told, this book is a pretty decent read, if a bit politically correct, and it was a very fast read at about 200 pages. The author has a particular focus, and he does a good job of addressing it in an organized and enjoyable way. His fairly narrow interest is the examination of twelve diseases that have particularly shaped human history, including the fates of nations and empires (he has a particularly strong interest in political history). The twelve diseases the author chooses to write about it are: Porphyria and Hemophilia, the Irish Potato Blight, Cholera, Smallpox, Bubonic Plague, Syphilis, Tuberculosis, Malaria, Yellow Fever, the Flu, and AIDS.
Most of the chapters take a similar turn, with a particular focus on public health, social political history, and the difficulties of identifying pathogens and treating/curing/preventing the resulting diseases. The book is not designed in a strictly chronological fashion, but the similarity of patterns between how people acted to one disease after another demonstrates a similarity of pattern that drives the narrative as a whole and clearly indicates a specific agenda, which the author talks about in his epilogue as well as throughout the book at different moments. And, let us be clear, this author has an agenda.
In fact, the author has several agendas, and they appear over and over again. One of the agendas is to demonstrate that the attitude of people and governmental authorities tends to be counterproductive. For example, the author comments on the consistent way in which pandemics tend to cause panics that spread diseases widely throughout the human population along trade and transportation routes, tend to exacerbate conflicts between classes and ethnic groups. Additionally, the author spends a lot of time with many of the diseases showing how the political response to diseases in general has made problems worse because of a lack of concern for the people who suffer from the diseases (who are often already stigmatized), as well as a seemingly consistent inability to engage in proper treatment because of their own political agendas.
Over and over again the author shows how an understanding of diseases throughout mostly recent human history (the author seems unaware of biblical history, whether intentionally or otherwise) has been hindered because of nationalism as well as limitations of science in previous centuries that prevented solid intuitive guesses from being verified and checked until relatively recently. At many points, the author talks out of both sides of his mouth, especially for those diseases (like syphilis and AIDS) that frequently spring from behavioral problems, pointing out that any long-term eradication plans for such diseases are going to require changes in behavior, without wanting to sound too preachy. One can easily sympathize with the political constraints the author is under without sharing his own particular biases or appreciating the way he resolves those difficulties.
There are a few lessons that this short book does provide, and even if the author is a bit heavy handed in some of his discussion, the point is worthwhile to make. These lessons are worthwhile to learn, and therefore the book is a worthwhile one for those of us who share an interest in public health and history as well as the study of diseases in general. These lessons include: the health and well being of the public often depends on cooperation between scientists that for various reasons is often lacking, as well as the will to do what is necessary to fight against diseases (both in prevention and treatment/cure) on the part of people as well as governments (which is often lacking–see India and polio). In addition, the will of wealthier people or nations in helping to tackle the public crises of other nations (from which diseases can easily spread) is also often lacking. This book reads like a broken record, where over and over again the same sorts of ethnic and cultural minorities are blamed for diseases, as if it was their fault, and where the same mistakes are made in assuming diseases come from “bad air” or from “bad genes” and not from specific and controllable factors in the environment. We would be better served to refrain from condemnation of specific people before studying diseases and their transmission thoroughly, but this is not our habit as human beings.
So, if you share the interests that my fellow teacher and I have in history, public health, and the study of diseases, this book does a good job in providing a rigorously researched and surprisingly optimistic view of how the historical frailty of societies and their governments in managing the periodic health crises provided by various infectious diseases may be improved. The author clearly desires for a common understanding of the common threats of disease to bring people together rather than tear them apart, but this seems to be a bit of a naive hope to this more cynical reviewer. If this book may help a little bit in this process in the minds of the reader, though, to be more inclined to research before condemning, the book will have served the clear agendas of its author to help better public knowledge of public health in the future. And that is nothing to sneeze or sneer at. Of at least secondary interest is the fact that the author comments on the influence of disease on literature as well as history, including the “romanticism” attached to diseases like Tuberculosis and AIDS. These little touches make the book even better and more intriguing.