Remember “9-11 Truthers”? They’d claim that the Bush administration engineered the 9-11 attacks, and that the twin towers were loaded with explosives, and say dumb things like “Fire can’t melt steel!”
I used to tell them; “Read a book on engineering that doesn’t have ‘9-11’ in the title.” It won’t make you an engineer, but it will equip you to distinguish science from conspiratorial bullshit.
Along those lines, here are some books I’ve read on epidemiology and public health. Some are written by scientists, others by prominent nonfiction investigative authors like David Quammen, where we begin:
SPILLOVER, by National Geographic writer David Quammen, is a globe-spanning exploration of “zoonosis,” or the tendency of animal pathogens to enter the human population. Nearly every one of history’s devastating plagues have been a zoonosis of one kind or another. Read this one first.
Virus Hunter: Thirty years of battling hot viruses around the world, by C.J. Peters (co-authored by Mark Olshaker, author of MindHunter.) The author is a US Army Colonel who pursued some of the most terrifying hot-zone viruses the world has faced, in places and ways that will help you understand the “pucker factor” that field epidemiologists sometimes face. Yikes.
Inside The Outbreaks: The elite medical detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, by Mark Pendergrast. The author relates his experience inside the EIS and those of other EIS field researchers, who go in the precise direction from which sensible people come running. You will end with an appreciation for how hard-won field science can be, and how your own life benefits from the courage required to carry it out.
The Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin. A deep dive into the historical and biological roots of the AIDS epidemic, this book will not endear you to colonialism, deforestation, homophobia, or jets. Like many of the books on this list, you will understand why modern pandemics have complex roots, and should make you suspicious of simplistic explanations or slogan solutions.
The Secret Life of Germs: observations and lessons from a microbe hunter, by Philip M. Tierno Jr, Ph.D. The author is known as the man who solved the mystery of Toxic Shock Syndrome, and a professor of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at NYU Medical Center and Mt. Sinai Medical Center. In this volume he tells stories of antibiotic resistant germs, Legionnaire’s disease, how contagion works, and for good measure a little something on germ warfare that won’t help you sleep well at night.
Who Gave Pinta To The Santa Maria? Tracking the devastating spread of lethal tropical diseases into America, by Robert S. Desowitz
Desowitz was a parasitologist who researched tropical diseases and worked with foundations in Africa and Asia, and author of several books, including this history. I found this one difficult to put down, and finished with the sound conviction that I am never going to visit the tropics.
The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is a detective tale about John Snow, thought to be the father of modern epidemiology. Snow famously drew a map of cholera cases in London in 1854, and figured out that they clustered around a particular well on Broad Street. Removing the pump handle prevented further cases, and inspired a new field in public health. But Snow was not the only person to make this connection in London or elsewhere: it was time, historically, for those dots to be connected.
When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS, by James Cross Giblin
Giblin is a non-fiction writer for young readers. The book is a readable history of three historic epidemics that have threatened humanity, and how they were understood at the time.
Epidemics In The Modern World, by Joann P. Krieg. (Have only read one chapter so far but looks really interesting) A nonfiction history and social impact of some of the worst diseases society has faced in recent times. Begins with the 1918 Flu Epidemic.
If you want up-to-the-minute insight from experts, I also have lists of epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts whom I follow on Twitter. You can search the lists to find recent posts.
Public Health list, Virology-Epidemiology list
Epidemiology is not only about biology: it is culture, history, economics, and much more. But of the part that is biology, another entire field comes to bear. It has been said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Sometime I will post a bibliography on evolution.