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8 best non-fiction books about historic pandemics, diseases, and outbreaks

By Jen Paolini 6 August 2020

Stuck at home with nowhere to go and nothing to do? We’ve lost count of the many times we have pulled up Netflix and browsed for something—anything!—to jump out at us and capture our attention, the countless instances we have walked up to the fridge and peered inside in hopes of finding something other than just half-eaten boxes of takeaway food (an odd-smelling portal to Narnia, maybe?), and the number of naps we’ve taken in just one day.

Now that we’ve exhausted all of our options and even the Nintendo Switch looks unappealing, we turn our gaze to the blessed OG of all entertainment art forms: the written word. And just to make things interesting, why not read up on diseases, pandemics, plagues, and outbreaks of the past for a comforting notion that this too shall pass? Here are eight non-fiction books to help put COVID-19 into perspective.

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Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health

Who was Typhoid Mary? Aside from being the victim of an unfortunate but accurate moniker, Mary Mallon was perhaps most famous for her role as a silent, asymptomatic carrier for typhoid fever in early-twentieth-century New York City. This wouldn’t have made the headlines, however, had she not been an immigrant cook and presumably enabled a deadly spread of the disease, infecting over 50 others through her cakes and puddings, ultimately leading to the death of three (though the unofficial number is speculated to be much higher).

Historian Judith Walzer Leavitt takes this remarkable character—who, by the way, thought it impossible that she was a carrier as she showed no signs of illness—and weaves a compelling narrative of social history and biography, the early days of microbiology and a fledgeling public healthcare system, and the long history of a disease out of control.

For a TL;DR version (that you’ll still have to read, albeit much slimmer than Walzer Leavitt’s tome), pick up Anthony Bourdain’s casual retelling of Mary Mallon’s tragic story, Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, recounted from the perspective of one cook to another, in which he weaves a tale of recklessness, unintentional murder, and an infectious wild-goose chase with his trademark dark humour and panache.

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Polio: An American Story

For those harbouring a touch of morbid fascination, this Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the polio terror of the 1940s and 1950s should be a particularly absorbing title to sink your teeth into, one that draws parallels to the same kind of desperate race we now find ourselves locked in to find a workable cure to a debilitating disease.

David M. Oshinsky, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on modern American politics and society, suspensefully documents the origins of the polio epidemic that clutched at the heart of the United States, the development and science behind the Salk and Sabin vaccines to combat it, and how, in an increasingly hygiene-obsessed, baby-booming America, the potential threat of what is actually an uncommon disease became a menacing presence that haunted people’s daily lives. It’s an exciting tale that chronicles both the American post-war mindset and how the advancement of vaccines practically erased polio from the face of the earth—totally unputdownable ‘til the end.

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Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

We’re all familiar with the alarming visuals of what a rabid creature looks like: a crazed set of glazed-over eyes, frothing at the mouth, and an insatiable urge to snap and clamp those chompers at anything that moves. As much as we know about the terrors of rabies, what’s still surprising is that it’s considered one of the most fatal diseases known to science, one that spreads rapidly from animals to humans with a fatality rate of almost 100 percent once the virus takes hold of the brain.

In Rabid, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy team up to shed light on the four-thousand-year-old history of this savage madness, answering questions of its origins, its importance in contemporary culture, how the science behind rabies served as inspiration and spawned generations of zombie films, and the search for a treatment, providing a novel and enthralling deep-dive into one of mankind’s most fearsome contagions.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

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

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but just one fleeting glimpse at John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza will tell you that this tome is bleak as hell. Authoritative, informative, and wholly engrossing, this New York Times bestseller joins together an exhaustive breadth of research, culminating in Barry’s critical reflection on the worst pandemic in history (thus far): the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, which infected a total of 500 million people in four consecutive waves.

One of our favourite aspects of this book is that Barry is an exceptional teacher, relying on familiar analogies and dumbed-down technical explanations to reach readers who are outside of the target audience of medical and science professionals. According to The New York Times, The Great Influenza is experiencing a renewed surge in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, spending eight weeks at the top of the paperback non-fiction list. Thousands of readers can’t be wrong.

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Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–1782

When it comes to devastating diseases, it seems as if the US just can’t catch a break. Pox Americana, Elizabeth A. Fenn’s fantastic report of the sweeping smallpox epidemic, presents a revelatory examination of the effects of variola and how it ravaged the young colony during the American Revolution and beyond.

Conditions for contagion could not have been better; military action meant an increase of movement and travelling, housing conditions were poor and packed in besieged cities, and, well, personal hygiene was lacking across the board, all of which led to the haphazard spread of smallpox. One thing that Fenn brings to light in her dramatic recounting is how shockingly little is known about the disease and its destructive trail. Illustrating how public health crises can shape the course of history, Pox Americana is an engaging page-turner, illuminating the path America had to take in the wake of a nationwide tragedy.

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The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time

Enough about America—there were plenty of diseases and epidemics to go around in the history of humankind, none so calamitous and gruesome as the infamous Black Death. As one of the earliest recorded pandemic events, the bubonic plague was an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, with disturbing statistics to boot. Claiming the lives of a third of the world population at the time across much of Asia and Europe—that’s some 75 million people—it’s safe to say that it was a dangerous time to be kicking about in the 1300s.

Rather than depending on a slew of abstract numbers and figures to tell this compelling story, author John Kelly takes a narrative and intimate approach in The Great Mortality to spin a spellbinding tale of desperation, uncertainty, sickness, and death. Living in a world of impossible choices, surrounding by a never-ending stream of news so petrifying it defied reason, and having to find ways to survive in a lawless society where it’s every man and woman for themselves—it’s as gripping as any horror novel out there. If you need even more convincing (how is that possible?), hark the recommendation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes, “Finally, a plague tale that rewards reading.”

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

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The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic

Follow physician and real-life hero Dr John Snow—not to be confused with the fictional hero of Games of Thrones—as he races against time to trace the origins and growing trail of destruction caused by the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. Just as the capital city emerges as a modern metropolis, its dragging infrastructure breaks down. Unable to support the growth and needs of a rapidly expanding population, London becomes the ideal breeding ground for a new disease.

Snow’s claim to fame is his creation of a map that covered London’s cholera cases, leading to not only a snappy title for this historical account from author Steven Johnson but also the key to identifying the source of contamination. Aided by his trusty sidekick, the Reverend Henry Whitehead, the duo find themselves in over their heads while seeking to solve a medical enigma. As much as the premise sounds like something straight out of Sherlock Holmes, yes, we promise it’s non-fiction.

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The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

If Bill Gates recommends it, then it must be good. We admit, there are not many occasions where one might want to read about malaria, but if you had to choose one book, let it be Sonia Shah’s. As the title suggests, investigative journalist Shah posits that malaria is one of the world’s oldest diseases, decorated with a long history of wreaking havoc in its path. Yet, as much as malaria continues to affect humankind, especially communities who live in poverty, and despite the attention it draws from celebrity pledges of support and philanthropic efforts, why are we not doing more to eradicate it?

To answer this question and more, The Fever takes us on an inquisitive journey to chronicle an ancient disease and its impact on human lives as it proceeds to infect more than 200 million people every year. Following a breadcrumb trail that leads us from the New World to the Panama Canal all the way through to the Industrial Revolution and modern wars, Shah captures the making of a persistent parasite that has posed a continuous threat to humankind for centuries.

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Jen Paolini

Content director

Born in Hong Kong, raised in Germany, and educated in the U.S., Jen is an award-winning creative with a background in illustration, communication design, art direction, and content creation. When she’s not getting lost in a good book, you’ll find her doing crosswords, eating dim sum, covering all sides of a “Hamilton” number, and taking naps.

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