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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Disease and History

*** Disease and History by Frederick F. Cartwright & Michael D. Biddiss. Non-fiction.

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 Carl'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.


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