Ten books to contextualize the history of infectious diseases and vaccinations

By Kate Barker

[Editors Note: This is the first in a number of follow up posts from the Infectious Disease, Contagion and the History of Vaccines theme week edited by Ian Mosby, Erika Dyck and Jim Clifford. We would like to thank Sean Kheraj for putting us in contact with Kate Barker for this post.]

As a journalist, I am sometimes accused of being a relativist, or worse, a “presentist” because I look to the past to make sense of today. I haven’t got a problem with that. Here’s a case in point. Consider the parallels between these two primary sources:


Don’t permit your precious little ones to be vaccinated.

Vaccination is not only unnatural, filthy and unclean,

but positively dangerous to health and life.[1]

An emerging body of evidence indicates that vaccines can damage a child’s developing immune system and brain, leading to life-threatening or debilitating disorders like autism, ADHD, asthma, peanut allergy, juvenile diabetes, etc, or to SIDS – death itself.[2]

The first is an excerpt from an 1885 pamphlet distributed in Montreal during a smallpox outbreak. The second comes from the website of the national Canadian not-for-profit organization Vaccine Choice Canada.

It is important to work as historians without occluding our vision of the past with the cultural accretions of our own time—to a point. True objectivity is impossible, but we can signpost our peculiar biases in time and space along the way. Many of the scholars considered here do just that while drawing direct links between their work and contemporary events. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. After all, history and journalism share the same core—a quest for truth and great story telling.

1. Honigsbaum, Mark. Living with Enza: the Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. London: Macmillan, 2009.

Honigsbaum knows exactly how to tell a great story and how to make it relevant. He is particularly deft at translating complex scientific data into the vernacular. Honigsbaum’s work is certainly a nod to Alfred Crosby’s groundbreaking America’s Forgotten Pandemic: the Influenza of 1918 and Carol Byerley’s 2005 Fever of War: the Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I.  He investigates virologist John Oxford’s theory that the deadly 1918 strain developed in France.  Etaples was ground zero in this scenario, where the close conditions of the largest BEF hospital housing up to 22,000 troops at a time in close proximity to pigs created the virus-mutating equivalent of a perfect storm. In the last chapters, Honigsbaum marries his account of the 1918 pandemic with chilling contemporary examples of bird flu scares from 2005 and 2012.

For those interested in the hard science, here’s an article from the man who literally broke the code: In 2005, molecular pathologist Jeffery Taubenberger sequenced the genome of the 1918 influenza virus as H1N1:

Taubenberger, Jeffery et al. “Characterization of the 1918 influenza virus polymerase genes,” in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science (Oct. 6, 2005) 437, 889-893.

2. and 3. Jones, Esyllt. Influenza 1918: Disease, Death and Struggle in Winnipeg. Toronto: UofT Press, 2007. And Magda Fahrni and Esyllt Jones, eds. Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-20. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012.

Jones’s account of how the pandemic played out in the neighborhoods and homes of Winnipeg considers the effects of gender, race and class on the survivors and victims. She applies the same considerations more nationally in her latest collection on the pandemic. Part one covers the public response and includes an essay on Canadian public health policy by Mark Osborne Humphries (author of The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Health and War. U of T Press, 2012). In the section analyzing who contracted influenza and why, Mary-Ellen Kelm examines the oral histories of some First Nations survivors in British Columbia. The last chapter concerning flu and public health in a contemporary context includes Heather MacDougall’s comparative study of the 1918 epidemic in Toronto with the 2003 SARS crisis in the same city.

4. Gleason, Mona. Small Matters: Canadian Children in Sickness and in Health 1900-1940. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Inspired by Jones’s consideration of gender, class and race in her cultural history of influenza in Winnipeg, Gleason applies another variable to her history of children’s health in Canada; age. Between 2004 and 2006 Gleason interviewed 32 survivors of various childhood illnesses, from diverse backgrounds across the country, all of whom recalled being seriously ill at some point during the development of Canada’s welfare state. She incorporates those personal narratives with archival records from the Canadian Medical Association and the Hospital for Sick Children patient records to provide a cultural context for perceptions of sickness, disability and childhood among medical professionals at the time, and how those perceptions changed.

5. Lux, Maureen. Medicine that Walks: Disease, Medicine and Canadian Plains Native People 1880-1940.Toronto: U of T Press, 2001.

Lux’s study of disease and medicine takes a strong position against the Western biological invasion theory as the only factor in the decimation of the Plains First Nations. She argues it wasn’t simply disease introduced by white newcomers that devastated First Nations populations, but rather the attendant overcrowding, starvation and poverty imposed on them by colonial powers. Lux examines how colonial forces used food as a weapon of control, first by destroying the Plains First Nations’ traditional food source, the bison, then by introducing substandard, insufficient, and tainted rations as a replacement, and finally, through political control by forcing leaders to sign treaties in exchange for food rations. Lux links the big killers of the Plains people—TB and whooping cough—directly to overcrowding and poor diet, both attributable to colonization. Lux also argues that medicine and treatment were only dispensed to indigenous populations when the health of whites were threatened.

6. Hardy, Anne. The Epidemic Streets: Infectious Disease and the Rise of Preventive Medicine 1856-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hardy devotes each chapter to eight of the biggest 19th century infectious killers of Britons in this examination of the impact of preventive policy on lowering mortality rates. She challenges Thomas McKeown’s theory (The Modern Rise of Population, 1976) that an improvement in food quality and standard of living alone accounts for the eventual defeat of these diseases. She starts with the big childhood killers: whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria, then moves on to smallpox, typhoid, typhus and ends with tuberculosis. Hardy doesn’t spare us the gruesome details. Death by diphtheria, for example, came when a membrane grew over the larynx—the child suffocated. Hardy considers the cultural impact of illness. Sufferers of respiratory tuberculosis, for example, were likely to conceal their affliction, fearing social ostracism, job loss and destitution. Hardy concludes that it took much more than improved food alone to stop these Victorian scourges.

7. Arnold, David.  Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic. Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

Arnold’s theory of hybridized medical practices operating before the eventual takeover of Western methods is at the core of much of the recent historiography in colonial medicine. Arnold argues that strong local resistance to Western ideas and medicine formed an essential component to the development of medicine in India. Not until the 1890s, when germ theory became well established, did Western medicine come to dominate there. There was, he argues, no medical “manifest destiny.” His discussion of the different treatments offered to smallpox victims in the early and mid-nineteenth century best illustrates this theory. In the 1830s, Indian doctors practiced variolation to protect villages from smallpox. They infected the young with the previous year’s strain. The skin was repeatedly pricked with an implement smeared in the pus of earlier victims. Though it killed some, the practice made most patients ill, but also immune to smallpox. In a time when importing cowpox vaccine was impractical, variolation was a more useful prophylactic. Eventually, it was outlawed by the British in India, but for almost 50 years, both variolation and Western vaccination were used in tandem.

8. Bliss, Michael. Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1991.

The story of the preventable deaths of some 3,000 Montrealers in the 1885 smallpox epidemic is masterfully told by Bliss in this engaging cultural history. Bliss closely examines the social, economic and political factors at play, including anti-vaccination advocates, widespread vaccine-apathy, French-English tensions, newspaper coverage, and a bungled public health response from the outset of the outbreak. He reveals how well-attended special events, like the winter ice carnival, the public funeral of Bishop Bourget, and the super-spectacle dual punch of P.T. Barnum’s Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show helped spread contagion. Bliss explores the high economic costs of an unnecessary epidemic in the most human of terms.

9. Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: the Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and how it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

This popular history is a ripping good yarn about how Dr. John Snow’s determined sleuthing in 1854 eventually led him to the infamous Broad Street pump, and to the source of a London cholera outbreak. Johnson makes this history personal, through the narratives of its victims, like the family of sons employed at a brewery devastated and shocked by their mother’s quick demise. She drank the tainted water at home, while they safely imbibed beer at work.

10. Talty, Stephan. The Illustrious Dead: the Terrifying Story of How Typhus Killed Napoleon’s Greatest Army. New York: Crown Publishers, 2009.

How lice brought down La Grande Armée would also work as a subtitle for this lively popular history. Talty, a journalist, includes graphic detail of the fate of thousands of French troops in 1812 who succumbed to typhus in Russia’s frozen interior. He begins with the excavation of a mass grave discovered in Lithuania in 2001. Some 2,000 bodies, three deep in a V-shaped trench confirmed their identity as members of Napoleon’s much-feared army, even before forensic test results. Talty goes on to describe the unfortunate end of more of their comrades, who finished their tours of duty stacked like cordwood, to serve as windbreaks for their weakened and shivering fellow soldiers. Talty explains everything anyone would ever want to know about the typhus pathogen, and its most efficient little vector—the body louse.


Kate Barker is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist in year two of the PhD program in History at York University. Her current research concerns the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Website: www.katebarker.com

Blog: The Gradual Student: A writer goes back to school at 45

Twitter: @kate4barker


[1] Bliss, Michael. Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal, Harper Collins: Toronto, 1991, 104.

[2] http://vaccinechoicecanada.com/about-vaccines/vaccination-the-basics/

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