The best books about contagious diseases

2 authors have picked their favorite books about contagious diseases and why they recommend each book.

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Natural History of Infectious Disease

By David O. White, Macfarlane Burnet,

Book cover of Natural History of Infectious Disease

This provides the reader with the background to understand what happens when a pathogen invades both an individual and a society. It’s an absolutely brilliant book by a Nobel laureate scientist, one of my all-time favorites on any subject.

Who am I?

John M. Barry was the only non-scientist ever to give the National Academies of Sciences Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture, and he advised the Bush and Obama White Houses on pandemic preparedness and response. He is an award-winning and #1 New York Times best-selling author whose books have also involved him in policy making. The National Academies of Science named The Great Influenza the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine.

I wrote...

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

What is my book about?

“Barry will teach you almost everything you need to know about one of the deadliest outbreaks in human history.” -Bill Gates

At the height of World War I, 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.


By Joshua Loomis,

Book cover of Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity

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.

Who am I?

Carol R. Byerly is a historian specializing in the history of military medicine. She has taught American history and the history of medicine history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was a contract historian for the U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General, Office of History, and has also worked for the U.S. Congress and the American Red Cross. Byerly’s publications include Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I and Good Tuberculosis Men: The Army Medical Department’s Struggle with Tuberculosis. She is currently working on a biography of Army medical officer William C. Gorgas, (1854-1920), whose public health measures, including clearing yellow fever from Panama, enabled the United States to construct the canal across the Isthmus.

I wrote...

Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I

By Carol R. Byerly,

Book cover of Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I

What is my book about?

The startling impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on the American army, its medical officers, and their profession, a story which has long been silenced. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people in one year than the Great War killed in four, sickening at least one-quarter of the world's population. In Fever of War, Carol R. Byerly uncovers medical officers' memoirs and diaries, official reports, scientific articles, and other original sources, to tell a grave tale about the limits of modern medicine and warfare.

The Coming Plague

By Laurie Garrett,

Book cover of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance

Notable for its prescience and timelessness, this award-winning book by Pulitzer and Peabody winner Laurie Garrett is a must-read for infectious disease aficionados. This book addresses the macro-level factors that drive the emergence of epidemics, such as the over-use of antibiotics in agriculture and climate change. It is a primer on why we need a global health perspective to address pandemics, so it's no wonder that it was re-printed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Who am I?

As an infectious disease epidemiologist, my personal and professional lives collided when my husband Tom acquired a superbug that was resistant to all antibiotics while we were traveling on vacation. The story of how a global village of researchers and medical professionals helped me save his life with a 100-year-old forgotten cure is the subject of our first book, The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug. A large part of my day job now is as a phage wrangler, helping other people who are battling superbug infections at IPATH, the first phage therapy center in North America.

I wrote...

The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir

By Steffanie Strathdee,

Book cover of The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee and her husband, psychologist Tom Patterson, were vacationing in Egypt when Tom came down with a stomach bug. What at first seemed like a case of food poisoning quickly turned critical, and by the time Tom had been transferred via emergency medevac to the world-class medical center at UC San Diego, where both he and Steffanie worked, blood work revealed why modern medicine was failing: Tom was fighting one of the most dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the world.

A nail-biting medical mystery, The Perfect Predator is a story of love and survival against all odds, and the (re)discovery of a powerful new weapon in the global superbug crisis.

The Pandemic Century

By Mark Honigsbaum,

Book cover of The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris

This highly informative book offers a well-written overview of most of the pandemics occurring from the “Spanish flu” of 1918 until Covid-19 of 2020. By giving a detailed historical account of everything from AIDS to SARS and Zika this book reassured me by showing how pandemics in the past had been overcome and so by implication how the Covid-19 pandemic could also be overcome. The author conducts detailed research into the exact chronology of each pandemic so that by helping to understand its epidemiology, he also creates an interesting and exciting detective story. 

Who am I?

I founded Critical Metaphor Analysis, an approach that has become well known in English language studies. My books Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis, Politicians and Rhetoric: The persuasive power of metaphor, and Analysing Political Speeches have over 5,000 citations. I am also ranked first on Google Scholar on political rhetoric. I have always tried (though not always successfully) to write in an accessible style to reach out to audiences beyond academia. As well as lecturing, I assist in the training of Westminster speechwriters. I love languages and speak French, Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Malay with varying degrees of incompetence; I have rediscovered the pleasure of watercolour painting.

I wrote...

Metaphors of Coronavirus: Invisible Enemy or Zombie Apocalypse?

By Jonathan Charteris-Black,

Book cover of Metaphors of Coronavirus: Invisible Enemy or Zombie Apocalypse?

What is my book about?

This book explores the metaphors used by the media and by politicians during the Covid-19 era to understand how language shapes our moral reasoning and the role of language in policy formation and communication during a period of crisis. It analyses metaphors, metonyms, allegories, and symbols to gain insight into the moral basis for the decisions that people made during the pandemic. It draws on cognitive linguistics, history, social psychology, and literature for a multi-layered interpretation of the language of the pandemic and its social and political consequences. 


By Arthur Allen,

Book cover of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver

Most of us can’t even pronounce the names of the childhood diseases vaccines have almost eradicated, nor can we imagine the parental grief, and childhood suffering, that those diseases routinely inflicted on families until well into the 20th Century. This comprehensive history reminds us that the development of vaccines was always a see-saw between life-saving advances, and terrible mistakes and failures.

Who am I?

I am a journalist and author who has been lucky enough to follow my curiosity wherever it led – from politics and presidents to climate change and crime. Most of my books explore a theme that fascinates me – the tension between science and religion, faith and reason, that is a defining challenge of our era. I have a deep respect for science, but, like most, an amateur’s understanding of it. The global pandemic has confirmed the need for accessible science writing to help us bring our understanding in line with what’s going on in the labs.

I wrote...

VIRUS: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hjacking of America’s Response to he Pandemic

By Nina Burleigh,

Book cover of VIRUS: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hjacking of America’s Response to he Pandemic

What is my book about?

Virus is a short book assessing what went wrong with the government response to the pandemic, what went right with the landmark COVID mRNA vaccine science, and the roots of the culture of conspiracy theories and disregard for expertise that has delayed our national recovery.

Pale Rider

By Laura Spinney,

Book cover of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

I read this book as background reading for writing my own virus-based novel, and it was an absolutely fascinating study of the response to a pandemic that took place almost exactly a century ago. It covers everything from the role of the First World War troops’ demobilisation on spreading the virus, to the impact of poverty on infection rates, to why young, fit people were the most likely to die of the illness. And, of course, why it was called Spanish Flu in the first place (spoiler alert: not because it came from Spain!)

Who am I?

In my day job working for a charity, I work with emergency planners, examining how we can minimise the harm caused by disasters, including outbreaks of disease. I’m fascinated by the measures in place to deal with catastrophes, and how contingency planners respond on a practical and a human level. When writing my novel about a killer virus, I devoured both fiction and non-fiction books tackling pandemics ranging from the Black Death to Aids. I am confident I know the skills needed to survive when a pandemic reduces the world’s population to a small, doughty band of survivors. I am not confident I possess these skills.

I wrote...

The Health of Strangers

By Lesley Kelly,

Book cover of The Health of Strangers

What is my book about?

The Health of Strangers is the first book in a series of crime thrillers set in Edinburgh, against the background of a (fictional) pandemic. Written pre-Covid, the books accurately predict many of the civil liberties issues we’ve grappled with during the coronavirus crisis. The Health of Strangers introduces Mona and Bernard of the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, who hunt you down if you miss your monthly compulsory health check.

Hampered by public indifference and limited resources, the team deals with corrupt politicians, religious cults, and illegal raves, and tries very, very, hard not to end up dead. 

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