The best books to understand how viruses cause disease and shaped history

Michael B.A. Oldstone Author Of Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future
By Michael B.A. Oldstone

Who am I?

Michael B.A. Oldstone was head of the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute, devoting his career to understanding viruses, the diseases they cause, and the host’s immune response to control these infections. His work led to numerous national and international awards, election to the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine. Oldstone served on the SAGE executive board of the World Health Organization and as a WHO consultant for the eradication of polio and measles.


I wrote...

Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future

By Michael B.A. Oldstone,

Book cover of Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future

What is my book about?

More people were killed by smallpox during the twentieth century--over 300 million--than by all of the wars of that period combined. In 1918 and 1919, the influenza virus claimed over 50 million lives. A century later, influenza is poised to return, ongoing plagues of HIV/AIDS, COVID, and hepatitis infect millions, and Ebola, Zika, and West Nile viruses cause new concern and panic.

The overlapping histories of humans and viruses are ancient. Earliest cities became both the cradle of civilization and breeding grounds for the first viral epidemics. Michael Oldstone explains the principles of viruses and epidemics while recounting stories of viruses and their impact on human history. This fully updated second edition includes new chapters on hepatitis, Zika, and contemporary threats such as the impact of fear of autism on vaccination efforts.

The books I picked & why

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Polio: An American Story

By David M. Oshinsky,

Book cover of Polio: An American Story

Why this book?

In a clear presentation, Oshinsky’s presents the gripping history of the conquest of poliomyelitis. The new and advanced role of the media’s impact and widespread community participation is detailed as is the terror of polio, efforts to understand the virus, and the disease it caused. The intense and competitive effort to find a cure adds to the story. Lastly, this book describes how the polio experience led to the establishment of government oversight for new drugs.

Polio: An American Story

By David M. Oshinsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Polio as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All who lived in the early 1950s remember the fear of polio and the elation felt when a successful vaccine was found. Now David Oshinsky tells the gripping story of the polio terror and of the intense effort to find a cure, from the March of Dimes to the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines-and beyond.
Here is a remarkable portrait of America in the early 1950s, using the widespread panic over polio to shed light on our national obsessions and fears. Drawing on newly available papers of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and other key players, Oshinsky paints a…


The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

By John M. Barry,

Book cover of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Why this book?

In the winter of 1918, at the height of World War 1, influenza virus infection arrived and killed over 50 million and perhaps up to 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in six months than the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or Covid killed since their discoveries. The cause, lessons learned in terms of this pandemic are subjects of this book and offer insights into what can be done for and during future pandemics.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

By John M. Barry,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Great Influenza as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the height of WWI, history's most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, "The Great Influenza"…


And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

By Randy Shilts,

Book cover of And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

Why this book?

This book characterizes the discovery and spread HIV and AIDS. Shits an investigative journalist provides an extensive look into the disease itself, the politics and politicians battling to control or ignoring the disease. Also discussed are the events that shaped the pandemic leading to its expansion or its control. 

And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

By Randy Shilts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked And the Band Played on as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Upon its first publication more than twenty years ago, And the Band Played on was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of investigative reporting.

An international bestseller, a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and made into a critically acclaimed movie, Shilts' expose revealed why AIDS was allowed to spread unchecked during the early 80's while the most trusted institutions ignored or denied the threat. One of the few true modern classics, it changed and framed how AIDS was discussed in the following years. Now republished in a special 20th Anniversary edition, And the Band Played On remains one…


Plagues and Peoples

By William H. McNeill,

Book cover of Plagues and Peoples

Why this book?

McNeill presents challenging historical concepts for the role of viruses, bacteria, and parasites in altering the history of civilization. The book is remarkable, informative, and sophisticated account of selected diseases on human history. Provided is an integration of infection with politics and culture. Of interest is McNeill’s book was among the first to dissect the role infectious agents played in altering civilizations 

Plagues and Peoples

By William H. McNeill,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Plagues and Peoples as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact--political, demographic, ecological, and psychological--of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, to the typhoid epidemic in Europe, the history of disease is the history of humankind. With the identification of AIDS in the early 1980s, another chapter has been added to this chronicle of events, which William McNeill explores in his new introduction to this updated editon.…


Ebola's Evolution: Turning Despair to Deliverance: a Road Map for Covid-19

By Michael B.A. Oldstone, Madeleine Rose Oldstone,

Book cover of Ebola's Evolution: Turning Despair to Deliverance: a Road Map for Covid-19

Why this book?

This book provides an intimate portrait of outbreaks of Ebola, the world’s most fearsome and deadly virus, and reveals how the result of that experience provides information to help fight Covid-19. Introduced are people who fought heroically with limited resources, including  Sheik Kahn who died fighting Ebola as it spread as a tsunami, Pardis Sabeti a geneticist named “scientist of the year” by Time magazine and Robert Garry who led the fight against viral hemorrhagic diseases. Sabeti and Garry worked with the authors and provide a personal narrative of the involved events.

Ebola's Evolution: Turning Despair to Deliverance: a Road Map for Covid-19

By Michael B.A. Oldstone, Madeleine Rose Oldstone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ebola's Evolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book provides an intimate portrait of multiple outbreaks of Ebola in Africa and reveals how the results of that experience can help us fight COVID-19.
Michael B.A. Oldstone, who led the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute worked with Ebola, teams up with Madeleine Rose Oldstone to give a detailed account of the 2013-2016 and 2018-2020 Ebola outbreaks.
The authors trace the origin of the disease, its spread like a tsunami thru Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the collapse of economies, and the development of anti-viral therapies against Ebola. They compare the outbreaks of one of the world's…


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Interested in viruses, pandemics, and Polio?

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