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5 Books About Epidemics and Pandemics

Explore the dramatic real-life stories behind Typhoid Mary, the 1918 flu and more

spinner image Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History  and Typhoid Mary book covers
Atria Books/Beacon Press

Learning about how we've contended with other alarming public health crises may give us hope that we can come through the current coronavirus pandemic intact as well. Here are five books that describe frightening outbreaks that have marked modern history; they include the reactions of a terrified public, the heroic characters who risked their lives to save others and, at least in some cases, scientific triumphs.

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spinner image Polio: An American Story book cover
Oxford University Press

Polio: An American Story

David Oshinksy

Boomers will remember the Salk and Sabin vaccines given to schoolkids to protect against polio — a shot (or sometimes a liquid to drink) that saved lives and virtually obliterated the disease that petrified early-1950s America. Oshinsky's story, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, about the race for the cure includes the famous March of Dimes fundraising efforts and the research of unsung heroes like Isabel Morgan, whose experimental vaccine prevented polio in monkeys. It's a fascinating look at both American postwar culture and the disease that helped define it.

spinner image The Hot Zone book cover
Anchor Books

The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus

Richard Preston

This one's on the scarier side. There could hardly be a more terrifying pathogen than Ebola, wildly infectious and gruesomely killing the majority of its victims within days. In his influential 1994 best seller (justly billed as a thriller), Preston argues that humans are partly to blame for the growth of this virulent, highly adaptable virus, whose emergence in the 1970s was fueled by the devastation of the African rain forests. Although there is still no cure, this is a horror story with real heroes, including the scientists who endangered themselves to stop the onslaught of the virus.

spinner image Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History - book cover

Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History

Jeremy Brown

For readers who want a more sober history and less of a thrill ride, ER doctor Brown's 2018 book (timed to the centennial of the great 1918 Spanish flu pandemic) is the perfect medicine. Brown carefully explains the origins and the controversies surrounding the flu, including promising and snake oil cures; the 1990s attempt by scientists to genetically decode the flu, which led to public fears about the creation of superbugs; and misconceptions about vaccines — relevant subjects to ponder while we stay home to thwart our current pandemic.

spinner image Flu book cover

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

Gina Kolata

Yes, it's another book about the 1918 flu outbreak, but this one, from 1999, is more fast-paced than Brown's; the story races around the world while tracing the supersonic spread of this flu, which killed 2.5 percent of those it infected and struck even the most remote parts of the planet. Kolata, a veteran New York Times science reporter, recently compared the 1918 flu to the current coronavirus outbreak — “the fear is the same,” but the world is far more interconnected today than it was a century ago, she noted in the Times, “so the long-term consequences remain to be seen.” Time (and plenty of books, years from now) will tell.

Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health

Judith Leavitt

Typhoid fever can be silently carried by hosts who show no symptoms of the disease at all — hence the havoc wreaked in the early 1900s by a controversial character named Mary Mallon, dubbed Typhoid Mary. An Irish immigrant who cooked for seven of the wealthiest families in New York, she didn't realize that she was carrying the bacteria that cause the disease, and ended up feeding her employers more than their dinners. This 1996 book describes how scientists finally tracked her down as the source of their infections, and suggests that her subsequent years of forced isolation (a punishment not suffered by other silent carriers) was in part due to her low social status in a prejudiced age.

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