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Biology of Plagues

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Biology of Plagues
Evidence from Historical Populations
By Susan Scott & Christopher J. Duncan
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge & New York, 2005
ISBN: 9780521017763

Were hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola, the cause of some of the plagues that ravaged Medieval Europe? In this ground-breaking book the authors demonstrated that it is likely that many of the epidemics that were once thought to have been cases of bubonic plague where in reality outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever...

Reviewed by Anna Dogole - December 2, 2014

Are you interested in learning about ancient and medieval plagues? Pick up almost any book you want and most, if not all, will equate all outbreaks of plague with bubonic plague (a.k.a. The Black Death). However, were all these outbreaks of plague really caused by the Yersinia pestis, a bacteria carried by fleas? According to research conducted by Susan Scott, a researcher at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Liverpool, and Christopher J. Duncan, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the same school, the answer is a resounding, "No!"

If Yersinia pestis was not the cause of all previous plagues, what was? Scott and Duncan tackle this intriguing question in their book, Biology of Plagues: Evidence from Historical Populations. Using a combination of modern epidemiological, biological, demographic, and computer modeling methodologies along with a detailed overview of the historical evidence, the authors present a compelling case for several of the most famous plagues being caused by hemorrhagic fevers, some similar in nature to the Ebola outbreak now ravaging West Africa.

This study begins with definition of what a plague is, and moves on to a brief overview of several historically important plagues, such as the Plague of Justinian and the Plague at Athens, 430-427 BC, along with the various theories that surround their etiology. The danger posed by emerging plagues is also touched upon. The authors then provide readers with a concise but detailed introduction to key epidemiological concepts from which they will better understand the material presented in the rest of the book. After these brief introductory chapters the authors move onto the core of the book - detailed studies of various plagues that have occurred throughout time - and they show how many of the 'plagues' where in reality outbreaks of diseases other than bubonic plague.

The authors, who have written extensively on bubonic plague in the past, include in this book a detailed overview of the biology of bubonic plague. Information provided includes details on how it is spread, the various forms it can take, symptoms of the disease, and data about known or assumed outbreaks. Combined, this information will help readers to understand how outbreaks of bubonic plague differ from many of the 'plagues' that the authors contend were not caused by Yersinia pestis. After laying this solid foundation, the authors embark upon detailed, and enlightening studies of various outbreaks including various outbreaks of plague in Europe from the 1300-1700's that are almost always considered by historians to have been cases of bubonic plague. In each case, the authors illustrate which outbreaks were likely to have been caused by bubonic plague and in which cases the cause of the outbreak was most likely another source. In each case they painstakingly explain, and document, why they think a given outbreak was not bubonic plague, and, when enough information exists, what the likely culprit might have been.

While the book as a whole was enthralling and eye opening, the book's conclusion was the most interesting aspect of the book for me. In this section, the authors look at how new advances in molecular biology have changed our understanding of how infectious agents work, and how genic studies can be used to study historic plagues. They also provide additional evidence to explain why Yersinia pestis was unlikely to have been the cause of many of the plague outbreaks that occurred in medieval Europe. Step by step they lay out their evidence, enhanced by information on how and where the various outbreaks occurred, how they spread, the impact of seasonality on the spread, the morality rates, public health measures taken to control the outbreaks, and the long term repercussions that these outbreaks had on the surviving populations. The summation of all this information, and the most intriguing aspect of the book, is that the authors conclude that many of the plague outbreaks discussed in the book where actually outbreaks of Filoviruses. Filoviridae (filoviruses) are the causative agents of hemorrhagic fevers in humans, such as the Ebola and Marburg viruses.

Filled with scientific and historical data, Biology of Plagues will provide ample fodder for not only historians and sciences interested in the study of historic epidemics, but also for modern day public health experts who not only have to deal with current outbreaks, but also future outbreaks of both well-known and novel diseases. While some aspects of this text may be a bit technical for those without a solid background in epidemiological methodologies, the authors provide enough background information for even those new to this subject to comprehend the evidence presented. The authors have also included a valuable list of references that will prove invaluable to anyone seeking to delve deeper into this intriguing subject.

Biology of Plagues is a thought provoking and unique book that is ideal for use in university level history, biology, epidemiology, and public health classes. It is also a 'must read' for both professionals and lay readers with an interest in the history and possible causes of past epidemics and the insights that they provide in regard to the future outbreaks.

Related Reviews:

The Black Death in Egypt and England, by Stuart J. Borsch.
An in-depth comparative study on the effect of the Black Death on Egyptian and English economies and agricultural systems. Also examines how agrarian practices in both countries affected their recovery rates.

Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901, by Myron Echenberg.
A detailed history of the third bubonic plague pandemic, in which the author follows the plague as it traveled around the globe, and looks at ten port cities that were affected by the plague, and how it was dealt within each city.

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