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History in Review

Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World

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Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World. By Irwin W. Sherman. (American Society for Microbiology ASM Press, Washington, DC: 2007. Pg. ix, 219.) ISBN: 978-1-55581-356-7.

Reviewed by Herbert White - February 18, 2009

Can a germ so small that you need an electron microscope to see really impact human history? It can, and it has done so repeatedly, and it appears that it will continue to do so, as long as man exists. In Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, Irwin W. Sherman, Ph.D., examines twelve different human and plant diseases that had a profound impact on history, and how the long-lasting repercussions of these diseases are still influencing life today. Sherman is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Riverside and is currently a Visiting Scientist in the Department of Cell Biology: Institute for Childhood and Neglected Diseases at the Scripps Research Institute. He is also a prolific writer, with more than 150 scholarly papers to his credit, as well as numerous books, including The Power of Plagues.

The twelve diseases discussed in this book include two genetic diseases, porphyria and hemophilia and one plant disease, the Irish potato blight. In addition, he also covers nine infectious diseases, namely: cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, yellow fever, the great influenza pandemic, and AIDS. In writing this book, Sherman has taken a four-prong approach. He describes what each disease is, how it affects the body, and how it is transmitted from one individual to another. He then looks at how the disease under study has impacted history in the past, and how it is still affecting human civilization today. Lastly, he examines how these diseases can be controlled or eliminated today and in the future, and how we as individuals, and as a society, can begin to prepare for the next plague that will menace us, and how we can try to minimize the long-term consequences of such an outbreak.

Throughout Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World, Sherman explains the disease processes in clear and concise terms and he fully defines all technical and scientific terms in plain English. His explanations are so eloquent and understandable that even someone without any background in the sciences will be able to follow his narrative. At the same time, he manages not to talk down to those who may already be familiar with the terms and processes that he is discussing. In addition, Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World is one of those unique history/science books that reads more like a thriller than a tedious textbook. In fact, when I started reading this book I had planned on reading it over several days. I ended up staying up half the night and reading it straight through. The mix of historical and scientific information is seamlessly interwoven, and Sherman's narrative style is mesmerizing.

With so many diseases to choose from, why did Sherman choose these twelve? In part it is because these twelve have had such a momentous impact on history, and they are still with us today. In addition, these twelve diseases actually helped change the course of history, from the potato blight that still causes about a 15% crop loss each year in treated fields, and up to 90-100% in untreated fields to the specter of Smallpox that although technically eradicated, still poses a threat as a biological weapon. Why is learning about these diseases important, especially in an age when vaccines, antibiotics, increased sanitation, and other avenues of prevention and treatment exist? As Sherman clearly delineates in this book, drugs and antibiotics lose their effectiveness over time, diseases mutate sometimes becoming more virulent than in past years and these mutations can sometimes make the vaccines developed to defend against them useless. In addition, new disease, such as AIDS are continually being identified, and environmental and political factors can make an area ripe for a disease outbreak that in 'better times' might have been easily controlled or prevented. In short, diseases of ever sort, even those long since thought controlled, can pose a threat to mankind. Learning how humans have dealt with these diseases in the past, and the impact that these diseases have had, better prepares us to deal with the inevitable next outbreak that is only a matter to time...

Related Reviews:

The Power of Plagues, by Irwin W. Sherman.
A comprehensive and accessible overview of the history of epidemic diseases, how they are transmitted, the social and political response to epidemic diseases both in the past and in the present, and how modern civilization is at just as much risk from epidemic diseases as were our ancestors.

Timebomb: The Global Epidemic of Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis, by Lee B. Reichman and Janice Hopkins Tanne.
An riveting account of the rise in Tuberculosis cases around the globe, and the increased threat posed by multi-drug-resistant strains of TB.

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