Kirkus Reviews QR Code
DISEASE AND HISTORY by Frederick F. & Michael D. Biddiss Cartwright



Pub Date: June 15th, 1972
Publisher: T. Y. Crowell

Napoleon probably didn't lose at Waterloo because he had a cold but his hemorrhoids may well have tipped the balance against him, and the dread warrior who decimated the Grand Army on the fateful retreat from Moscow was none other than General Typhus. Queen Victoria was the unlikely villainess who transmitted the hemophilic gene to Tsar Nicholas' son which led to Rasputin's demonic hold over the Tsarina which in turn helped bring on the Russian Revolution. And Eternal Rome succumbed not to the decadent luxury of the East but to malaria. Cartwright, who heads the Department of the History of Medicine at King's College, London, and Biddiss, a Cambridge historian, trace the ravages of pestilence through several centuries of European history with equal attention to infected monarchs and the effects of epidemics on demographic and social change. A fascinating appraisal of the 14th century Black Plague (""probably the greatest catastrophe in European history"") includes an assessment of its impact on economic organization (it sounded the death knell for feudalism) and on popular religion (it undermined the authority of Rome and intensified the tradition of the scapegoat Jew). The mystery of how syphilis arrived in Europe in the 15th century is considered but not resolved and the authors diagnose a number of kingly sufferers (Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible) of the pox who vented their persecution deliriums on their hapless subjects. The slow advance of medicine from pure thaumaturgy to something approximating science is sketched in as well. The book does not pretend to be comprehensive and historians will find any number of lacunae -- e.g. medieval notions of leprosy and the impact of cholera on 19th century sanitation and urban planning are not considered and the various eruptions of mass hysteria including the dancing manias of medieval Germany (attributed to LSD, present in the ergot of rye) and the witch hunts of the 17th century receive scant attention. Nonetheless this is an exceptionally rewarding treatment of germs and running sores as prime movers in historical development.