5 Essential Reading Materials for History/Science Buffs Stuck in Quarantine

Unless you’re a doctor or grocery store worker, it’s probably safe to say that you have some spare time on your hands right now. That’s because, regardless of wherever you live, the emergence of the corona-virus disease (COVID-19) is likely forcing you to stay indoors and quarantine yourself from the world as well as from your friends and family. But let’s face it, if you’re as interested in History as we are then you’re probably used to that anyways.

With all this time on your hands, why not start a new book? Luckily for you, we have put together a list of titles/research that specifically focuses on the role of medicine and science in history. As difficult as times may be at the moment, it is always worthwhile to see how previous generations encountered and approached diseases such as the plague, “yellow fever,” polio, the ‘Spanish Flu,’ cancer, and other medical ailments. Besides keeping you occupied, we also hope that this list of titles will also help to show you that things can always be worse.

  1. Albert Marrin’s Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

It’s almost impossible to understate the destruction left in the wake of the First World War. After four years of unrestrained global conflict, somewhere between 11 and 15 million people had died the world over. The once powerful Austria-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires were utterly destroyed. Revolution forced the Kaiser in Germany and the Tsar in Russia out of power: the former in favor of a democratic Republic, the latter in favor of a communistic Bolshevik dictatorship. Genocide ravished Greece and Armenia killing millions further. The economies of most nations were in tatters just as starvation and famine rapidly grew. Entire villages were quite literally wiped off the map following the carnage of ‘The War to End All Wars.’ It is in the wake of all of this mayhem that the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918 emerged on the world stage.

For those looking for a concise overlook of the war, the outbreak of the flu and its emergence in American society, Albert Marrin’s Very, Very, Very Dreadful could be a good start. Because it is primarily written for a young-adult audience, it sticks to the basic facts in a less-than 300-page format that is ideal for the title’s intended audience or more experienced history buffs/scholars looking for a review. Additionally, Marrin’s Very Dreadful is also a good choice for parents and or teachers looking to keep their kids intellectually occupied during the coronavirus outbreak. Finally, Marrin’s work may also serve as a bridge into the more academic works on the Spanish Flu by Gina Kolata discussed in further detail below.

Relevant Links:

2.) Gina Kolata’s Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It

  Gina Kolata’s Flu can be seen as an intellectual step-up from Marrin’s aforementioned work. Significantly longer, Kolata’s experience as a science writer for The New York Times really shines here. Kolata focuses primarily upon the scientific and biological nature of the virus and the research done into discovering its contagious qualities. Along with the relevant scientific information about the flu, Kolata also does a great job in describing how the social conditions caused by World War I assisted in its transmission from the United States into Europe and Asia and beyond. We’ve all seen the image of a cell splitting into two, then those two into four, and those four into eight, and those eight into sixteen…Well this was all too similar.

Soldiers in the First World War—tightly and densely sheltered with millions of other malnourished and exhausted compatriots—were exposed to the disease, many for the first time. By the time the War concluded, these millions of soldiers were finally sent home. They carried with them more than the horrors of war. For in their bodies and in their blood, the soldiers also carried the seeds of the worst pandemic of the modern era. As countless billions of viral cells were multiplying into countless trillions, the very foundation of modern society changed forever. All in all, Kolata’s work is a great title for those whose interests were sparked by Marrin and wish to dive deeper into the intersection of medicine, science and history.

Relevant links

3.) Ole J. Benedictow’s The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History

For the especially brave souls out there, Professor Benedictow’s magnum opus on the ‘Black Death’ or the European Bubonic plague is another fantastic work of history, science and medicine. Unlike Marrin or Kolata’s briefer work on the Spanish Flu however, Benedictow’s work is significantly longer and couched in the academic language of a professional historian. Be wary. While the research on the plague is authoritative, the vast array of charts and graphs may put off some readers that may not have the experience reading dense tomes that a professor or graduate student might be used to.

If you should be brave enough to commit to reading The Black Death however, you’ll undoubtedly be impressed by the granular level of description that the author provides regarding the plague. Many pages are devoted to the biological characteristics of the flies which carried the disease, how they transmitted it to rats, the cringe-inducing symptoms and other gruesome reminders of the plague’s fatality. In all, The Black Death symbolizes research at the highest level. Given the current pandemic, it may be worth going through given the amount of time on our hands. It never hurts to be reminded that it can always be worse: and sometimes it often has been. It is not by coincidence that the hardcover edition features Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1562 painting The Triumph of Death on the cover.

With all of the fear that—for better or for worse—-is surrounding the corona virus outbreak, it is a worthy reminder of how crucial the intersection of medicine and health and science is not just to ourselves, but to our society as well.

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4.) Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Everyone knows the ‘big-names’ of science; Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Hawking etc. These titans of science certainly earned their reputations and their contributions are justly referred to as historic. Nevertheless, science—like history—is also composed of countless other, lesser known, figures as well. Figures who provide invaluable gifts to history but are often lost in the volumes of its pages. Henrietta Lacks is one of those figures. There is a very good possibility that you, me, and everyone we know and love has benefited from Henrietta’s.

Henrietta was a relatively poor African-American woman from Maryland who died from cancer in the early 1950s. Although she lacked the formal education that Einstein or Newton received, she nonetheless was invaluable in her own way: as the supplier of the literally immortal “HeLa” cell. As hard to believe as it might seem, Henrietta’s cancer was likely caused in part by a continuously generating line of cells that proliferated inside her body. Unlike most other cells from deceased patients however, Henrietta’s continued to multiply outside of her body after her death. In fact, many of her cells are still multiplying to this day. With this unbelievably unique specimen, many American scientists and corporations were able to use the HeLa cells to create life-saving innovations in the field of medicine, many of which were massively profitable. The Lacks family was notably left out of any of these profits until Rebecca Skloot largely popularized the story into a wider audience.

The book itself is a fantastic read. I was personally introduced to Skloot’s work while taking a graduate level course several years ago. Don’t let that concern you however. Unlike Benedictow’s dense academic prose, Skloot interweaves the story of Henrietta’s life as well as her own efforts to help her family in a much more accessible way. Although Skloot’s telling of the story goes back-and-forth from past to recent present very rapidly, she does so with considerably fluidity that keeps the reader engaged. This would be a great book to occupy middle school to high school students during the corona-virus outbreak, as well as their parents themselves. Skloot’s work is also accompanied by an HBO series starring Oprah Winfrey that has received very positive reviews. This would be a very interesting book that both parents and students can use to occupy time and stimulate educational growth. After reading and discussing, they can take a break and supplement what they read by watching a well-produced series of episodes.

It is very likely that you indirectly know someone who has been infected with the corona-virus. It is much more likely however that you directly know someone who has, or has been, affected by cancer. Henrietta was one of those people and her story is much more than the discovery of her priceless contribution to science. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is also a story about the role that race, class and gender has held within the US medical system as well.

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5.) David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story

The story of the polio disease in the US is, in some ways, similar to that of the Spanish Flu or the coronavirus outbreak of today. Polio spread with extreme rapidity, killing and crippling thousands. Charities and public efforts were established to combat the disease and fund a cure. Also like the coronavirus outbreak, the spread of polio was not limited to poor farmers or cramped factory workers in unsanitary conditions. Polio infected these types of people as well as members of the political elite at the highest levels of government, including none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This is why David Oshinsky’s research into the American polio experience is so valuable. The book itself was a winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History and it is easy to see why. Oshinsky covered more than the historical facts of the polio outbreak. Oshinsky also addressed America’s combined response to polio in several different fronts. The author also used the papers of Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin and Isabel Morgan to show how America’s best and brightest scientists worked to develop a cure. Additionally, the author also described how private citizens formed programs like the March of Dimes to fight the disease in their own capacity. In all, the sum total of public and private efforts to fight polio eventually resulted in the production of a vaccine that has saved millions of lives. Like Skloot’s research, Oshinsky’s book also details how some lesser known figures—like the brilliant Isabel Morgan—are sometimes forgotten to history despite their essential contributions to it, particularly women. Most importantly however, a deeper look into America’s response to the polio crisis is yet another reminder that while devastating pandemics have often caused incredible amounts of fear, panic, death and destruction, we have survived, recovered, and prevailed. The corona-virus will be no different.

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Other Related Science/History reads!

  • Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History by Catharine Arnold
  • Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley

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