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!