Biological- and chemical-weapons expert Tucker offers a chilling account of smallpox’s history, eradication, and temporary reprieve from total extinction, in virology labs in the US and Russia.
Beginning with the biological origins of smallpox, Tucker (Toxic Terror, not reviewed) traces civilization’s battle against this particularly disgusting disease. Noting its profound effect on historic events, from Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War to Cortez’s subjugation of the Aztec empire, the author goes on to document humankind’s battles against it, leading up to the World Health Organization’s triumph of eradication in the 1960s and ’70s. The author spins an engaging tale of the gritty conquerors and accidents of history that allowed smallpox to become a focus of global efforts, narrowly beating out malaria as the scourge of choice for the international community. From African deserts to Bangladeshi slums, untold thousands worked to follow chains of infection and to inoculate in the most trying conditions, many destroying their own health in the quest to break the back of the disease. As told by Tucker, it’s a stirring tale, equaled in emotional impact only by horrifying saga of what happened after the WHO Nairobi field office documented the world’s last known smallpox case in 1978. “The Kremlin cynically viewed this triumph of international public health as a military opportunity,” he writes. The Soviets had incorporated biological weapons research into their military agenda beginning in the 1930s, and it remained on their five-year plans through the 1991 dissolution of the USSR. Tucker’s in-depth report on the tremendous resources and scientific brainpower toiling away in maximum-security Russian labs is mightily compelling, and his command of the myriad international political players and details is masterful. His vivid descriptions of the disease’s symptoms, revolting and riveting in equal measure, ensure that only the most jaded reader could lay the book aside.
A true-life tale of heroes and villains, frighteningly real and marvelously told.