The best books on historic accounts of plague outbreaks

Charles Kenny Author Of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease
By Charles Kenny

The Books I Picked & Why

The History of the Peloponnesian War

By Thucydides

The History of the Peloponnesian War

Why this book?

Widely regarded as the first detailed written account of a plague outbreak. Thucydides describes an infection that struck Athens in 430 BC -it may have been typhoid or Ebola. His description of the flailing of doctors in response, and of subsequent social disorder became a model for later writers. The plague was a big factor in Athens’ defeat by Sparta.


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The Decameron

By Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron

Why this book?

Written by Boccaccio after the Black Death struck Florence in 1348, The Decameron is a fictional account of ten young Florentines who fled the city to escape the plague, and the tales they tell to while away the time in lockdown. As well as amusing stories, the book has some sharp contemporary observations on how people and the city responded to the Great Mortality.


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A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe

A Journal of the Plague Year

Why this book?

Another fictional retelling involving the Black Death, but this one written about the last great outbreak in the UK, in 1664-5. Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) wrote the book in 1722, drawing on contemporary accounts and considerable research. It describes the mass mortality, fear and horror that accompanied the plague and is one of the earliest examples of closely accurate historical fiction with a purpose: to warn readers that it could all happen again.


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Rats, Lice and History

By Hans Zinsser

Rats, Lice and History

Why this book?

Unlike the other four books in this list, Zinsser’s is an overall history of disease (if focused on typhus) not the story of a particular outbreak. But Zinsser was actively involved in the history he retells at the end of his book as a researcher on a typhus vaccine. Published in 1935, it remains a fascinating and hugely enjoyable primer of the role of infection in history.


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

By Richard Preston

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

Why this book?

Preston is a thriller writer. He took those talents and applied it to the story of the emergence of Ebola in the 1970s and related viruses. Much like Defoe, he did so with the explicit aim of warning people about future outbreaks –sadly prescient in the case of Ebola.


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