Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers – Mary Dobson (2007)

Now, there is a dismal solitude… shops are shut… people rare, very few walk about… and there is a deep silence in almost every place. If any voice can be heard, it is the groans of the dying, and the funeral knell of them that are ready to be carried to their graves.

Thomas Vincent, describing the Great Plague of London, 1665-1666.

Seeing as we are in the midst of this current pandemic, what better time (thought I) than to read more about other diseases that have occurred throughout history. So, shopping my TBR shelves, I found this book…

This title was written by Mary Dobson, a medical historian who was director of the Wellcombe Unit for the History of Medicine and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. (Thus, she knows her facts and there are a lot of them. She’s also, pleasingly, a very good writer.) 

As the book’s subtitle tells you, the contents cover health emergencies over the years, ranging from syphilis to schistosomiasis (due to parasitic worms in tropical aquatic snails) to SARS and bird flu. 

It was really interesting to read that Dobson, a scholar of medical history, also mentions the then-current widespread concern for another modern flu pandemic, perhaps from animal vectors (and this was when the book was published in 2007, 13 years ago).  And yet the Orange Goblin disbanded the U.S. Pandemic Taskforce last year since “we didn’t need it anymore.” <smh>

[Aside: I am so curious to read the not-yet-published NF account of this particular current-day pandemic. You know there are gonna be a few titles out there that will cover it.]

Back to the book: the chapters are divided into Bacterial Diseases, Parasitic Diseases, Viral Diseases and Lifestyle Diseases, and each chapter (and disease) goes into depth (including pretty detailed timelines) to cover the basic history of the topic for that section. It was absolutely fascinating for me.

Since I am a medical history nerd, I thought it might be best to approach this using bullet points. Here we go: 

  • Quarantines first started when the Black Death arrived at a Venetian colony called Ragusa. The inhabitants detained travelers from an infected nearby island for thirty days (or trente giorni). This time period proved not quite long enough so they increased the time period to forty days (or quaranti giorni) – thus, the word “quarantine”. Now you know… 😉 
  • Speaking of plague, you may remember that 17th-century physicians had the wearing-a-mask activity and social-distancing down to a science… They would also stuff herbs down the beak to help cover up the smell of rotting flesh. (See pic below.) Luckily, we don’t need that just yet. 🙂
  • Another word-related random fact: stethoscope. Invented in 1816 by French physician Réné Théophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), who had been embarrassed when treating a young overweight woman patient. He had wanted to listen to her heart but didn’t want to put his ear directly against her chest, so he rolled up a tube of newspaper and bingo – the start of a new medical instrument. (“Stethos” is Greek for “chest”, and “skopein” means “to look at”.) 
  • And OMG. I was thoroughly grossed out by the discussion of human worm infestations. One rather ethically-dubious experiment concerns two criminals who had been both condemned to death in the mid-19th-century. A researcher called Friedreich Küchenmeister fed the prisoners some pig meat with worm larvae inside it, and once the men had been put to death, scientists recovered adult tapeworms from their innards, one measuring 1.5m (or about 5ft) long. Euuugh.  (One good thing about worms: they have potential to treat human illness as a form of biotherapy, but you’d have to (heavily) sedate me long-term for that procedure if the worms are alive when they’re put in me.) 
  • The word “vaccination” originates from Latin “vacca” (which means the word for “cow”). Pasteur gave the procedure that name in honor of earlier researcher, Edward Jenner (1749-1823) who came up the idea of inoculating healthy people with cowpox to give them immunity to the more virulent and fatal smallpox, a big problem at the time. 
  • Speaking of smallpox, why is it called “small” pox? Possibly to differentiate it from syphilis, another disease with pustules and called the “great pox”. 

And there is more really interesting info, naturally, in this read but I don’t want to wear out my welcome with you. (You might not be quite so taken with medical history as I am!) 🙂

So – expect Part Two in an upcoming blog post, and in case you’re not sure, I really enjoyed this particular read! 

One of the 17th-century physicians wearing the plague-avoidance outfit of the time. Not such a far remove from the mask and glove requirements of the current day. 😉

6 thoughts on “Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers – Mary Dobson (2007)

  1. This sounds SO interesting! Thanks for such a thorough review, this was fascinating to read and I’m looking forward to the second installment 🙂 Would you say that this one is written very academically, so that it might not be as accessible for someone who hasn’t read as widely in medical history? I’m also really interesting in reading about where there might be historical precedence for certain elements we’re facing now. Thanks for the excellent introduction to this one!

    • Hi there. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly academic tome. It’s very approachable with lots of white space and loads of related graphics, so I would say if you are a curious reader (which you seem to be!), you’d be fine. 🙂 And there are definitely some overlaps between previous historical times and the strange period in which we are right now. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  2. Oh, so interesting! I love the mask with the bird beak! I think I might need to make myself one of those for when I go back to work. Wouldn’t;t you like to check out books fro someone wearing a mask like that? 😀

  3. Pingback: Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers – Mary Dobson (2007) | mysophobia 潔癖

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