Friday, June 02, 2023

Foreign Bodies by Simon Schama


Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama is a fabulous book. I found it very dense -- packed with amazing detail about the history of medicine and science, but also packed with social, political, and international history, as well as presenting biographies of several scientists. The book includes amazing illustrations and early photographs. 

Schama especially concentrates on the nearly forgotten researcher Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930), who was born and educated in Odessa in its vibrant 19th century Jewish community. With a degree in laboratory science, Haffkine then worked in the Pasteur laboratory in Paris and labs in England, and then went to India where he developed mass-produced vaccine against outbreaks of cholera and plague. He personally administered the vaccine when authorities didn’t fully support his efforts. 

Eventually Haffkine became a victim of petty bureaucratic spite backed by antisemitism, xenophobia, and general political messiness. The enemy he met was “institutional barbarism”. He experienced “the disrespect for science, the unconscionable inattentiveness to illuminating knowledge by those entrusted with public health, and those superior gentlemen who set themselves up as the custodians of imperial duty.” In sum, Haffkine eventually became the victim of “the sovereignty of the ignorant and the lazy over the persevering and the learned.” (p. 348) It’s a fascinating story and two paragraphs here are unbelievably inadequate to reflect the complexity and richness in Schama’s narrative, which covers numerous other scientists as well as Haffkine.

After reading the 400 pages of this amazing book, including the stories of many quests to conquer mass outbreaks of diseases, I feel as if I should immediately begin again and read it a second time. Even if I did reread it, I think I would miss a lot of the richness of detail and human interest. (Simon Schama's other books have made me feel the same way.) I’m baffled by how to review or even summarize such a dazzling selection of varied scenes, personalities, issues, comparisons between historic and modern events, and rivalries and conflicts between experts.

The covid-19 pandemic and the race to provide a vaccine to interrupt the disastrous spread of the disease obviously triggered Schama’s exploration of other pandemics and how science (in whatever form it took in that age) dealt with the challenges. His subject historic diseases are mainly smallpox, cholera, and bubonic plague from the 18th through the 20th century, but he brings in parallels to the successes, mistakes, and political shenanigans of the 2020 covid outbreak and how the epidemic and the vaccine were politicized.

Science in each era included men (and very few women) who were searching for the cause of the emergent or re-emerging diseases, so Schama offers amazingly accessible detail of the work of microbiologists, epidemiologists, and brave doctors and nurses who worked in clinics, laboratories, or just in villages and cities. Over time, they discovered the effecting organisms: viruses, bacteria, or the malaria parasite. In each case, researchers then had to convince establishment medical scientists or (worse yet) bureaucrats with turf to protect. Some of the non-science people held onto different theories, such as the idea that disease was a result of miasmas coming from sewers or marshes rather than from the bites of infected insects. Some of them were simply jealous or willing to steal credit for the accomplishments of others. Some used the situation to manipulate the public for dubious political gain. Never a pretty story, but totally fascinating. As the Kirkus reviewer expressed it: 

“This is a broad canvas, but Schama, a diligent and experienced historian, keeps the narrative on track, and he has a good eye for illustrative anecdotes. It adds up to a strong story that, in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, speaks to us all.” (source)

Foreign Bodies was published last month in England. I think it’s ridiculous that it will not be available in the US for several months, and I ordered a copy to be shipped to me from Blackwells. They offer free shipping if you are sufficiently interested to read it now, when it’s really relevant!

Review © 2023 mae sander
To be shared with Sunday Salon at Readerbuzz


Helen's Book Blog said...

Simon Schama is so good at what he does, but I do get overwhelmed by the dense details. I've only read his French Revolution books and it was a long time ago.

anno said...

This looks fabulous -- with much more of the broad-ranging perspective I'd hoped to get from Michael Lewis. Thanks for making the introduction to this author. I think I'm going to give his book on Dutch history a try; and then maybe the one on art. It's hard to choose...

Terrie said...

Sounds almost like a textbook to me - even with the anecdotes sprinkled throughout. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and appreciate the time it took you to compose such a thorough review - but it won't be for me.
Hope you have a terrific week.
Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

Cindy said...

While this one is not in my wheel-house, I appreciate your thorough review! Have a great week!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

There is something depressing about seeing how the petty focus on egos and politics that held humans up long ago persists today.

Maybe it is this focus that scientists should target for elimination.

But perhaps that is such an inherent part of humanity that it cannot be overcome.

Thank you for sharing this book with all of us.

Jinjer-The Intrepid Angeleno said...

Sounds pretty fascinating actually!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Hello Mae, Foreign Bodies sounds good but intense. Probably not a good time for me. Hope you have a good week.

JoAnn said...

Last month I read a book about the Supreme Court and have one on climate change coming up later this month. As much as this interests me, it will be a while before I get to it. Thanks for the review!

thecuecard said...

Impressive to order it from Blackwells. Did it take long to get? It looks pretty comprehensive on details.