Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Viruses, Plagues, and History by M. B. A. Oldstone

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, United Kingdom

Cover of Viruses, Plagues, & History: Past, Present, and Future Second Edition by Michael B. A. Oldstone.

The first edition of Viruses, Plagues, and History was published to great acclaim twenty years ago and has now been updated to include the pandemics of the twenty-first century. These include the SARS, MERS, and Zika virus outbreaks, which have now been eclipsed by COVID-19. The early story of the current pandemic is included up to April 2020 when the book went to print.

Viruses contain tiny amounts of genetic material, can only survive by reproducing in a living cell, and have wreaked havoc and misery on humanity for centuries. After a brief introduction to the basic principles of virology and immunology, the book describes smallpox and how it was eventually eradicated. Other vaccine development is described in detail, including the work of Max Theiler and the yellow fever vaccine in 1937 (Nobel Prize, 1951); the contributions of Enders, Weller, and Robbins in culturing the polio virus (Nobel Laureates in Medicine, 1954); and the work of Salk, Sabin, and Koprowski on the polio vaccine.

The story of measles is also described, including vaccine development in the 1960s, the work of Enders, and the controversies around this topic. This measles vaccine alone has saved over seventeen million lives in the current century. Scientist’s work on viral hepatitis is included as well.

Lassa Fever, Ebola, and viral hemorrhagic fevers continue to plague parts of Africa; no vaccines are yet in sight for these often lethal conditions. The account of the recent Ebola outbreak makes for somber reading. SARS, the first twentieth-century pandemic and caused by a coronavirus, also eluded scientific attempts at producing a vaccine.

The book covers the AIDS pandemic caused by the HIV virus, which has afflicted over seventy-five million people to date. Today advances in treatment have enabled patients to live with this condition but a vaccine still eludes the scientific community.

Influenza, a considerable source of morbidity and mortality in the last century, is included as well. Today we have a vaccine that has helped reduce the mortality from this common disease.

The book, written by an expert virologist and immunologist who has spent his life researching how viruses infect cells, is a superb overview of the viral infections that have afflicted humanity. Oldstone’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of this subject adds a unique dimension to this book, which is also thoroughly researched and extensively referenced for readers who want to read the original sources.

ARPAN K. BANERJEE, MBBS (LOND), FRCP, FRCR, FBIR, qualified in medicine at St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham from 1995–2019. He served on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology from 2012–2017. He is Treasurer of ISHRAD and adviser to Radiopaedia. He is the author/co-author of numerous papers and articles on a variety of clinical medical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

Winter 2021



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