Understanding The Power of Plagues: Context and History

During the time of the Ebola media whirlwind, I often reminded people that infectious diseases have been a force in history since the dawn of civilization. While I firmly believe that the basic motive force of history is ideas, infectious diseases have played supporting roles. 

The Plague of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, Justinian's Plague, and the death of Alexander the Great are some of the more ancient examples. Modern examples include the Black Death, the collapse of the Aztec Empire, Napoleon's retreat from Russia, the 1918 flu pandemic, and HIV.

With that context constantly in mind conditioning every bit of knowledge I have of infectious diseases, it was not hard for me to integrate the daily happenings of Ebola--which brought 3 nations to the brink of collapse--with the storied history of infectious diseases of past eras.

The Power of Plagues by Professor Irwin Sherman  does a very good job of cataloging such invaluable facts. When contemplating any current or future infectious disease outbreak, having the ability to activate this vast amount of information gives one a powerful tool with which to make predictions and understand the situation. 

I just finished this 2006 book and found it very relevant 8 years after publication and particularly so with respect to Ebola, even though it is not a formal part of the book. Specially when Sherman discusses how a society responds to a new disease it was almost as if I was reading a contemporary after-action report on the current Ebola outbreak, attesting to the validity of the principles identified. 

Most of the contents of the books were familiar to me but Sherman's explanations of popular nursery rhymes, words, and activities whose origin can be traced to disease were somewhat new. Also, the presentation of malaria, the discovery of viruses, and other topics proceed in a very inductive manner which allows one to follow the key discoveries in a manner that retraces how the intellectual progression developed.

For those who want an easily digestible overview of the topic of infectious disease, this book would serve the purpose well (and would even benefit more expert readers).