For those who take their medicine with an air of mayhem.



An overlong but informative tale of civilians versus the medical establishment—set, in this case, in the disease-ridden 18th century.

The world has largely forgotten the horrors of smallpox, writes journalist and literary historian Carrell in this debut. Though the last known case was recorded in 1977, smallpox had claimed “a victim count in the hundreds of millions,” killing “more people than the Black Death and all the bloody wars of the twentieth century put together.” The tide began to turn in London and Boston when two who had survived the disease, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, employed folk medicine to protect their families, learned in Montagu’s case from Turkish servants and in Boylston’s from African slaves. Involving a rudimentary kind of inoculation, their borrowed cures earned them a reputation for quackery at first, and plenty of jeering from local folk and medical authorities alike. But Bostonians and Londoners eventually came around, with invitations “to try it on a child or two”—understandably, inasmuch as inoculation, and later vaccination, reduced the odds of dying of smallpox by orders of magnitude. The best parts of Carrell’s narrative involve her careful accounting of the effects of Montagu and Boylston’s daring experiments: “The Earl of Berkeley’s son did marvelously well: only 70 or 80 small pustules which clung to him a mere nine or ten days and then scurfed off, leaving no trace of their passage.” But Carrell inclines toward a too-inclusive use of historical material, resulting in a narrative that runs on far too long, one less well controlled and less compelling than those of, say, medical mysterians Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) and Richard Preston (The Hot Zone). Still, there is much good information here—and even a somber warning that, though apparently eradicated, any number of possibilities exist for smallpox to make a comeback, as well as for some equally deadly disease to sweep across the world in its stead.

For those who take their medicine with an air of mayhem.

Pub Date: June 2, 2003

ISBN: 0-525-94736-1

Page Count: 420

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.


A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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