BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

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