EPIDEMICS by Geoffrey & William K. Beatty Marks


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Had the authors mined further, panning the pure gold from their primary and secondary sources, offering more social commentary or speculating more on the natural history of epidemic disease, their book would have wider interest and appeal. As it stands it is a scholarly compendium of the major plagues that have decimated human populations from Egyptian to modern times. Medical detective work is not sufficient to pin down the cause in every case but it is clear that diseases like typhus, bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, and flu were well known in ancient times. On the other hand the strange English ""sweating sickness,"" waves of dancing mania, or the recently discovered Lassa fever in Africa are a reminder that the reservoir of human ills is not static. There can never be a disease-free society. Instead an infection flares up, follows traffic or trade routes, comes in with invading armies or settlers in new territories, and often has devastating social effects. The authors suggest that the end of Greco-Roman culture came about as a result of a major 6th-century outbreak of bubonic plague. Later the bubonic ""Black Death"" of the Middle Ages led to the religious fanaticism of the Flagellants and to anti-Semitism. Unfortunately a heavy emphasis on eyewitness accounts wearies the reader with descriptions of symptoms and mortality rates; only occasionally is the commentator a Boccaccio or Petrarch, Samuel Pepys or Heinrich Heine (who vividly describes a dancer falling dead of cholera at a masked ball). While the major scourges have been eliminated, it is disquieting to know, finally, that a number of current plagues appear incurable.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1976
Publisher: Scribners