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How the Cows Turned Mad

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How the Cows Turned Mad
By Maxime Schwartz. Translated by Edward Schneider. (Berkeley, University of California Press: 2003. Pg. 238.) ISBN: 0-520-23531-2.

Reviewed by Leo Johnston - August 26, 2003

How the Cows Turned Mad is a medical thriller that you will have on the edge of your seat - and watching what you put in your mouth! Written by Maxime Schwartz, a molecular biologist and the director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. He is also a professor at the Institut Pasteur and he works with the French agency for food saftey (AFSSA). This work was originally published in France, were it was well received. This new edition of How the Cows Turned Mad has been translated into English by Edward Schneider. Although this book reads like a medical detective thriller, it is in reality a factual history about an incurable, fatal brain disease that came to public attention under the moniker Mad Cow Disease.

Throughout time, man and beast have been beset by a variety of spongiform encephalopathies, ranging from Scrapie and Kuru to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease). In this monumental and timely work, Schwartz traces the history of medical research into spongiform encephalopathies, and how the scientific understanding of how they are spread has changed over time.

Schwartz begins his journey with a look at how scrapies, a disease that primarily affects sheep, was first identified in the eighteenth century. He follows the trail of the scientific discoveries and inquires that followed through 2001. Along the way he details how animal to human transmission of these disorders was studied, and why it was, with the knowledge that was available at the time, that no one made the connection that cattle with BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) might be capable of transferring the disease on to humans.

Schwartz's narrative is captivating and chilling, and throughout his statements are balanced, authoritative, and cool-headed. He explains detailed scientific principles in clear and unambiguous terms that allow even those with no scientific background to easily follow the developments that he is chronicling.

How the Cows Turned Mad is not a sensational book. It acknowledges the threat posed to humans by spongiform encephalopathies, however the author is more concerned with the history and spread of the disease rather than current hysteria over Mad Cow disease. Written for a general audience, it will also prove intriguing to academicians interested in spongiform encephalopathies and other brain wasting diseases.

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