book review

Book Review: Taming Infection

TAMING INFECTION: The American Response to Illness from Smallpox to COVID by Gregg Coodley and David Sarasohn is an engrossing history of infectious diseases’ toll on humanity. Check out what Kathy L. Brown has to say about this nonfiction book.

Book Review: Taming Infection

Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown

An engrossing history of infectious diseases’ toll on humanity

How far has science come toward defeating a myriad of microscopic killers? Despite modern sanitation and public health advances, they still surround us. 

Gregg Coodley is an American primary care physician and AIDS researcher as well as deeply involved in COVID care. David Sarasohn is an experienced health care journalist.  Together, they provide a timely guide to infectious disease.

Geared toward the lay reader, Taming Infection places modern epidemics like AIDS and COVID-19 in context with the long and deadly heritage of smallpox, cholera, and other pathogen-induced illnesses. 

Taming Infection is the story of the infectious diseases that have most tormented    humanity as well as the impact of these illnesses on American history. In a clear conversational voice, the book explains fifteen major infectious diseases’ microbiology and clinical presentation as well as the measures developed to combat them. 

After placing each disease in its world-history context, the discussion focuses on its impact on American history and the American response to the illness. Given the global COVID-19 pandemic, the book’s analysis of the response to past pandemics, insights into current ones, and advice for the future are particularly pertinent. 

As each disease is discussed, a response pattern quickly becomes evident—a pattern we see even today with the COVID-19 pandemic. Denial of the basic facts of germ theory. Treatments based on ignorance. Scapegoating some “other” outsider as the illness source. Then, eventually, scientific research, best medical practices based on science and clinical experience, and organization of a public health response, which is often resisted and criticized. 

The book includes many anecdotes of the various diseases’ grim toll, giving a human face to the statistics. “His father…was an expert on diphtheria…His mother…was…the first female physician admitted to the New York Academy of Medicine. Yet on June 10, 1883, their son, seven-year-old Ernst Jacobi, died of diphtheria. His mother wrote, ‘I feel sometimes as if the whole world must stand and look at me for my inability to save this lovely child.’”

The book frequently illustrates a point with a vivid historical incident. For example, “Historians have offered many explanations for why the North won the Civil War…The North had a secret weapon…Quinine! Malaria doesn’t show up in many histories of the Civil War, but the disease…running wild…especially in the South, had a powerful debilitating effect on armies…The Union naval blockade of the South…critically shut off its supply of cinchona bark—the source of quinine [and] only cure for malaria.” 

This book effectively delivers complicated concepts and information. Medical and public heath practices always interact with social mores and governmental policies. For example, before effective treatments for tuberculosis, much emphasis was placed on testing and eradicating underlying environmental factors. Programs for the poor such as education, public health, nutrition, and visiting nurses appealed to the progressive movement and social reformers. With their support these initiatives became law in the early twentieth century. 

Taming Infection provides the non-medically trained audience with basic information on microbiology, pathology, public health, and history. Its research is thoroughly documented in footnotes and bibliography, and the book includes helpful charts and photographs. 

Readers interested in infectious diseases of the past and, unfortunately, the present will gain much from this book. History buffs will find new insights into the tremendous impact disease has had on events from war to colonization to legislation, as well as human behavior. It provides much food for thought and should provoke lively discussion of healthcare policy, law, and regulation. 

Publisher: Atmosphere Press

Genre: Nonfiction / Health / History

Print Length: 556 pages

ISBN: 978-1639883943

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