The Best Books On How Diseases Shape Society And Can Change The Course Of History

By Carol R. Byerly

The Books I Picked & Why

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

By Elizabeth A. Fenn

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

Why this book?

This is another book on disease and war and shows how smallpox was a lethal actor in the American Revolution. Smallpox gave the largely immune British forces an advantage over Americans, (white, Black, and Indian), who had never been exposed to the virus, which prompted General George Washington to order the inoculation of his troops. This was the first government immunization effort in American history. The book then follows the virus across the continent as it traveled with foreign traders and native peoples, devastating tribal populations from East to West.


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Plagues and Peoples - Central Role Infectious Disease Plays in World History

By William H. McNeill

Plagues and Peoples - Central Role Infectious Disease Plays in World History

Why this book?

This is a classic and the first book I ever read showing me how disease has shaped world history. Over millennia, pathogens have evolved with human populations, adjusting to changed landscapes and the rise modern agriculture and great urban centers. They take advantage of human travel and commerce, and flourish in social disruptions such as war, famine, and mass migration. McNeill describes how diseases helped determine winners and losers in history and also have inspired scientific investigation which has brought some pathogens under control.


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Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History

By Janet Golden, Charles E. Rosenberg

Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History

Why this book?

One of the editors of this volume is a pioneer in the history of medicine, Charles Rosenberg, who theorizes that diseases are powerful “actors” in society. The book uses fourteen case studies to demonstrate how diseases can “frame” people in various ways, defining their lives with pain, disability, or stigma. Diseases also give rise to various institutions such as sanitariums, research laboratories and stimulate the development of medical specialties. As our scientific and social understanding of individual diseases changes over time, how a society responds to or “frames” those diseases changes as well.


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Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity

By Joshua Loomis

Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity

Why this book?

This is a sweeping study of disease in human history written by a scientist who describes both the biological and historical trajectory of ten infectious diseases that have afflicted human society, from bubonic plague to HIV/Aids. While science and medicine continue to find ways to control individual diseases, new infections and parasites continue to emerge to sicken, disable and kill. Loomis concludes with a thoughtful discussion about the future of epidemic disease as we continue to alter our global environment.


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Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914

By J. R. McNeill

Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914

Why this book?

McNeill, William McNeill’s son, examines the intersection of disease, ecology, race, and international politics to show how infectious disease shaped the fortunes of colonial empires in the Caribbean. In the wake of the encounter between Europeans and the New World which destroyed up to 90 percent of the Amerindian population, European empires restructured the region into a colonial economy of sugar and slavery. Mosquitos bearing malaria and yellow fever flourished in this environment and McNeill shows how anyone seeking power in the region had to reckon with both them and disease.


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