The end of at least one plague, smallpox, is the centerpiece in immunologist Rhodes’ saga of humanity’s attempts to overcome infectious disease.
The author begins with the story of Edward Jenner (1749–1823), delivering a rich portrait that reveals Jenner as a gifted student befriended by members of the Royal Society, a doctor who was also an avid fossil hunter, botanist and student of bird migration. Most of all, he was a caring physician who wanted to bring the fruits of vaccination to the world—and at no cost to the poor. Vaccination in time would replace variolation, the procedure based on inoculating smallpox material under the skin to induce a mild case of disease in order to confer immunity. The danger was that variolation sometimes killed the patient and was also a source of contagion for those in contact. Rhodes makes clear that all the present-day controversies—the anti-vaccinationist advocates who declare vaccines as seeding autism or other plagues—were just as evident in the 19th century and probably with more reason, since vaccine material did not travel well, could lose potency and could become contaminated with other germs. The author goes on to provide a brief primer on immunology and the differences between killed and live attenuated vaccines. He then deals at length with the polio story and the bitter feud between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. His concluding chapters get bogged down in the country-by-country details of the conquest of smallpox and similar details in the up-and-down progress in eradicating polio. Nevertheless, Rhodes celebrates the work of thousands of volunteers as well as ongoing research to develop vaccines against new scourges.
By no means the end of plagues, but a wonderful account of the end of smallpox and the man who deserves full credit for devising one of the safest and most effective means of prevention.