Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion

Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion

by Richard Conniff
Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion

Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion

by Richard Conniff


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How scientists saved humanity from the deadliest infectious diseases—and what we can do to prepare ourselves for future epidemics.

After the unprecedented events of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when deadly diseases were a routine part of life. It is harder still to fathom that the best medical thinking at that time blamed these diseases on noxious miasmas, bodily humors, and divine dyspepsia. This all began to change on a day in April 1676, when a little-known Dutch merchant described bacteria for the first time. Beginning on that day in Delft and ending on the day in 1978 when the smallpox virus claimed its last known victim, Ending Epidemics explains how we came to understand and prevent many of our worst infectious diseases—and double average life expectancy.

Ending Epidemics tells the story behind “the mortality revolution,” the dramatic transformation not just in our longevity, but in the character of childhood, family life, and human society. Richard Conniff recounts the moments of inspiration and innovation, decades of dogged persistence, and, of course, periods of terrible suffering that stir individuals, institutions, and governments to act in the name of public health. Stars of medical science feature in this drama, but lesser-known figures also play a critical role. And while the history of germ theory is central to this story, Ending Epidemics also describes the importance of everything from sanitation improvements and the discovery of antibiotics to the development of the microscope and the syringe—technologies we now take for granted.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262047968
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 04/11/2023
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 272,482
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer for Smithsonian magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications, and a past Guggenheim Fellow. Among his many books are The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth; Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals; The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide; and, most recently, House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. Conniff has been a commentator on NPR's Marketplace and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

Table of Contents

Preface: The Healing ix
1 What the Draper Saw 1
2 Deadly Preconceptions 11
3 Foreign Bodies 17
4 Precursors 25
5 Ridiculous Diseases, Inconceivable Ideas 31
6 Buying the Pox 39
7 Slaying the Speckled Monster 51
8 An Angel's Trumpet 59
9 The Great Sanitary Awakening 69
10 Finding Pathogens 81
11 The Semmelweis Reflex 89
12 Making Sense of Cholera 99
13 The Broad Street Pump 109
14 Louis Pasteur: The Rising 119
15 The Subtle Foe 131
16 The Mystery of the Cursed Meadows 137
17 A New Vaccine 145
18 The Bible of Bacteriology 155
19 Defining the Indefinable Something 161
20 (Re)discovering Cholera 171
21 A Sacred Delirium 179
22 Immunity and the Strangling Angel 191
23 Deadly Carriers 205
24 The Beast in the Mosquito 213
25 Fit for Duty 223
26 A Pathogen too Far 233
27 Midnight Work 239
28 The Antibacterial Revolution 249
29 Penicillin 257
30 Race to the Vaccine 271
31 Zero Pox 289
Epilogue: The Plague Next Time 305
Acknowledgments 311
Notes 313
Index 341

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A dramatic, page-turning account of the grim, never-ending war waged by infections on humankind. And how we fought back, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.”
—Paul A. Offit, Professor of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; author of You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccinations, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation

“A taut interrogation of the centuries of labor that protected us from pathogens, a bitter lament for how quickly we abandoned our awareness of risk, and a stirring call for a new generation of disease fighters to take up the battle. Ending Epidemics drives home the post-COVID lesson of the peril of complacency.”
—Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken, Superbug, and Beating Back the Devil; Senior Fellow, Center for the Study of Human Health, Emory University

Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.”
—Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer
“A timely and highly readable account of humanity’s struggles and progress in the fight against infectious disease. Set across three centuries, from the birth of immunology to the antibiotic revolution, Conniff draws on the personal stories behind these great medical and scientific leaps. A fascinating read with powerful lessons for tackling today’s—and indeed future—epidemics.”
—Peter Piot, Former Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; author of No Time to Lose and AIDS: Between Science and Politics

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