For a generation of children, COVID-19 is their first, scary introduction to belligerent malaises that science has not tamed yet. Which is, perhaps, why an awareness of the many epidemics and pandemics that have brought nations to a standstill over the centuries — the Spanish Flu, for instance, that killed 5,00,00,000 people in three years between 1918 and 1920, or the recent Ebola virus epidemic in 2014 — can offer a perspective. Here are three books, both fiction and non-fiction, that look at deadly diseases and how science ultimately got the better of them, but not before considerable human cost.
One of the scourges of the 19th century — among the most virulent ones civilisation has seen — was cholera. In The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel (2013, appropriate for 10 + years), Deborah Hopkinson takes readers to the heart of London in 1854, where a teenaged orphan, Eel, has been enlisted by Dr John Snow, a prominent physician, to help him figure out what lies at the root of the deadly disease that is sweeping through London’s streets. While the general opinion is that the disease — termed “blue death” for the ashen pallor it leaves victims with — is airborne, Dr Snow believes otherwise, and he needs Eel’s help to prove his theory. Based on the London cholera outbreak in 1854 and the real Dr Snow’s contribution in tracing its cause, Hopkinson’s book is historical medical fiction, paced like a thriller, introducing readers to one of the deadliest pandemics of all times.
First published in 1998, Seattle-based doctor Jeanette Farrell’s Invisible Enemies: Stories of Infectious Disease, a medical biography of seven deadly diseases, is a sharp introduction to epidemics and pandemics and the immense scientific research that went into taming them. Farrell’s account takes young readers (appropriate for: 8+ years) through the ravages of malaria and how cyclical the nature of infection spread is; how the malevolence of cholera was tamed in India by a measure whose roots go back in time; the catastrophic effects of AIDS and the complicated approach to small-pox eradication; and the social stigma of leprosy, among others. Farrell intersperses her account with photographs, public health advisories and newspaper cartoons, that lets the historicity of the narrative shine through. Throughout the book, Farrell looks at these diseases through both a scientific and a social lens, that lends it a literary flair, rare for such books. Farrell’s other book for young readers, Invisible Allies: Microbes that Shape Our Lives, is equally recommended.
In Suzanne Jurmain’s The Secret of the Yellow Fever: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing (2009, appropriate for 12+ years), a team of American doctors, headed by Dr Walter Reed, arrives in Cuba in the 1900s, where deadly yellow fever has been on a rampage, and where they must figure out a way to save the afflicted. The only way to do so, of course, is to get to the root of the disease. Theories are flung thick and fast but none seem to strike home till the team comes across a Cuban doctor, Dr Carlos Finlay, who had been toiling on his own to get to the root of the mystery. Jurmain draws from memoirs, letters and logbooks of the actual team of doctors who shed light on yellow fever to build a story of suspense, intense scientific rigour and ethics. There is none of the airbrushed heroism that often characterises biographical fiction. Instead, Jurmain’s account brings alive the stench of death and the despair of failure in vivid detail.
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