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Disease and History (1972)

by Frederick F. Cartwright, Frederick Cartwright

Other authors: Michael D. Biddiss (Author)

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327460,959 (3.67)2
This fully updated edition of 'Disease & History' examines diseases such as the plagues which brought down ancient Greece and Rome, the Black Death which devastated 13th century Europe and, more recently, AIDS and the SARS epidemic.

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Reviews the effect of disease on history ( )
  oldman | Sep 23, 2012 |
Cartwright’s Disease and History is not an overview of the history of medicine, it is a demonstration of the ways that disease, ill-health, has historical agency, how it affects the course of human events. The book does have a few minor shortcomings but Cartwright skillfully shows how disease can drive history. Because the book was written in 1972 we have to expect to find issues with it. Forty years of progress will have some bearing on the medical “facts” discussed although someone would need a better understanding of the science than I have to find medical anachronisms in the book. There were, however, several times I wished to learn what the latest DNA research said about the topic under discussion. Social progress is also evident when reading the book. Although the book is Eurocentric to a degree it is obvious, later in the book, that Cartwright does make an effort to look beyond Europe.

The first few chapters are Eurocentric, most noticeably the first chapter which looks at disease in the ancient world and relies almost exclusively on Western sources. This is somewhat excusable, at the time the book was written the longest written historical record, China’s, was locked behind Mao’s Bamboo Curtain. The next three chapters, covering the Black Death, syphilis, and typhus, goes some distance to amend any shortcomings in the first. Cartwright honestly looks at the disease trio, syphilis, smallpox, and yaws and honestly evaluates the evidence rather than simply assuming that syphilis sprang from the New World simply because it sprang into the historical record shortly after Columbus’s voyage. This is also where I wished for modern DNA evidence. In the next two chapters he looks at how disease affects “virgin” populations and populations that have become acclimatized to them by looking at the devastation of the New World’s indigenous people and how the diseases of West Coast Africa kept the Europeans at bay for hundreds of years. Cartwright also looks at genetic problems, examining Queen Victoria, hemophilia, and the fall of Russia’s Tsars, as well as mass hysteria as represented by Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and man-made health issues represented by thalidomide and air pollution.

Although Disease and History was written forty years ago it is still a worthwhile read. Cartwright has, or it seems to me he has, found the correct balance between history and science. He manages to explain both the science and the history in plain language. He managed to find interesting and provocative examples for the issues he wished to discuss. I found the Thalidomide story particularly interesting in that it has largely been ignored. Why doesn’t this story get told every time someone suggests “streamlining” the approval of new drugs? After all, isn’t the study of history about not repeating mistakes? ( )
2 vote TLCrawford | Jan 16, 2012 |
Ah, the power of PM. Somewhere in this book, and I wish I'd put a sticky note in so I could post the exact quote, it states that in wartime, disease is more deadly to soldiers than battle. Which was the entire reason for my specialty when I was in the army (preventive medicine specialist), and for my husband's job now. Which, in turn, is why I bought this book years and years ago. I'd just never actually sat down and read the whole thing until now.

Disease and History is a little more wide-ranging than just the history of disease in a military setting--it shows how disease has changed the course of history, from epidemics that killed thousands to how disease affecting an individual ruler or ruling family caused changes in how, or sometimes whether, they ruled.

However, it's a real chore to slog through reading.

The first couple of chapters are the most interesting, the ones about the Black Death and other epidemics, and I found the chapter on Napoleon just fascinating.

But the writing itself is painful to read--it's written like a freshman research paper. Lots of telling the reader what you're going to tell them. Then there are the tangents. A section will be about a particular disease, but it'll meander off into a long-winded discussion of something else and never end up tying the two together, or making a conclusion about it.

That's particularly evident in the later chapters--a discussion of hemophilia and the fall of the Russian monarchy gets completely derailed, and the chapter on mass suggestion is just a mess of unrelated stuff that if I were cynical, I'd suspect was added to cash in on the Princess Di fever.

The final chapter, about modern life, is a bit dated--understandably so, since the book was first written in 1972, so it's a historical look at the subject in itself. It's a combination of interesting facts and the author's political and generational biases.

Even though Disease and History has a lot of flaws, I very much enjoyed parts of it, and found the subject matter intriguing enough to plan on seeking out other books on the subject. I think I've mentioned here before that my history education was pathetic. All about which wars happened when, with a great deal of emphasis on the memorization of names and dates. It's been a great revelation to me as an adult that it's possible to study history as something other than a fill-in-the-blanks spreadsheet.

Heh. And now I've gone off on a tangent of my own. ( )
2 vote Darla | Nov 20, 2008 |
History Disease
  Budzul | Jun 1, 2008 |
Showing 4 of 4
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» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Frederick F. Cartwrightprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cartwright, Frederickmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Biddiss, Michael D.Authorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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This fully updated edition of 'Disease & History' examines diseases such as the plagues which brought down ancient Greece and Rome, the Black Death which devastated 13th century Europe and, more recently, AIDS and the SARS epidemic.

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