A short history of disease: plagues, poxes and civilisations

Sean Martin cover 12014 is likely to be remembered as the year of Ebola. From the first case in March 2014, we all anxiously followed the daily reports of the spread of the Ebola virus throughout Africa and of the cases of Ebola in Europe and America, mainly of healthcare workers travelling back from affected countries. But an epidemic of such proportions is not new – as explored in Sean Martin’s “A short history of disease: plagues, poxes and civilisations, the human race has faced and been shaped by disease since the start.

The book is logically divided into different eras, charting the history of disease from prehistory through to the 21st century. Martin’s accounts of how different societies dealt with disease offers a glimpse into the culture of the time, including civilisations as far as back as the Romans, who believed in bathing in public baths to relieve disease (which actually contributed to its spread). Equally interesting are the descriptions of cultural practices that have served to contain disease, for example the use of quarantine, travel bans and sex abstinence by the Acholi people in Uganda to deal with the ‘evil spirit’ that causes Ebola.

What works particularly well is the description of the fascinating intersection between disease and society – essentially how disease has shaped civilisations throughout history. Noteworthy examples include how disease may have contributed to the spread of humans throughout the globe in prehistory, how the Black Death changed 14th century society by, for instance, helping to end the feudal system, and how smallpox may have contributed to the collapse of the Aztec empire.

Despite this, I cannot help but be disappointed. Through this whirlwind tour in just 250 pages, I felt that I was being rushed through history, being bombarded with facts and names, rarely pausing enough to delve into a topic, or disease, any deeper. This is particularly the case in the last two chapters, where, for example, a history of cancer is offered in just 4 pages. Linked to this were the frequent diversions to different (and seemingly irrelevant) topics, for instance jumping from tuberculosis in the 19th century to the discussion of the practice of royals touching their subjects to alleviate disease.

Instead of trying to cram as much information as possible, Martin (with the help of an editor) should have selected some key examples of diseases that have most influenced civilisations through history, which in my opinion is the most interesting aspect of the book anyway. This would have offered the book more focus and would have allowed him to examine the impact of those diseases on society in more detail.

Finally, in his discussion of the spread of diseases to the New World, Martin mentions that African slaves were naturally immune to smallpox because of sickle cell anaemia, a condition that changes the shape of red blood cells. Perhaps he means malaria, which sickle cell anaemia is well known to offer resistance to, as the malarial parasite infects red blood cells?

All in all, this book had the potential to be fascinating but sadly for me it didn’t quite get there.

Rachel David is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Sean Martin: A short history of disease: plagues, poxes and civilisations. Pocket Essentials (25 Jun. 2015) ISBN-10: 1843444194; ISBN-13: 978-1843444190. Amazon link

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