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Viruses, Plagues, and History Hardcover – January 22, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

Had it not been for viruses, the U.S. and Canada might today be one country; the African slave trade may not have been as extensive; and the Spanish almost certainly wouldn't have conquered the Aztecs and other New World native peoples. In fact, viruses have affected world history more extensively than most of us can imagine. Viruses, Plagues, & History not only shows us what viruses are and how they work, but looks at what newer ones such as Ebola and HIV might mean to our future. Even more frightening, Oldstone discusses the influenza virus of 1918 to 1919--which may have killed as many as 50 million people worldwide and certainly helped England, France, and the U.S. defeat Germany in World War I--and wonders if it's due for a return visit. Granted, a book with a chapter titled "Mad Cow Disease and Englishmen: Spongiform Encephalopathies--Virus or Prion Disease?" isn't for everybody, but it's a fascinating for anyone interested in health and wellness and the medical future of our planet.

From Library Journal

The current interest in emerging diseases has led many virologists to write their own popular books on the subject. Many incorporate the entertaining if lurid detail popularized by Richard Preston's bestselling The Hot Zone (LJ 8/94). Some, like Frank Ryan in his Virus X (LJ 1/97), use accounts of emerging virus outbreaks as a lead-in to fascinating discussions on the ecology and evolution of viruses. Oldstone, who directs a laboratory of viral immunobiology at the Scripps Research Institute, takes a more traditional approach, intending to write in the spirit of Paul de Kruif's classic Microbe Hunters (1926). After a short introduction to the principles of virology and immunology, Oldstone describes the partial or total conquests of four major killers?smallpox, yellow fever, measles, and polio?then discusses old and emerging diseases that are serious threats?Lassa fever, Ebola, Hantavirus, AIDS, and influenza. Unfortunately, Oldstone's writing lacks de Kruif's prose style and engrossing detail; much, if not all, of his work reads like a rather terse textbook. Also of concern is Oldstone's tendency to ignore controversies or make unsupported statements that go against generally accepted scientific consensus. His competent but unexciting book is an optional choice for general science collections.?Marit MacArthur, Auraria Lib., Denver
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (January 22, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195117239
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195117233
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 1.1 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,694,511 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Wikman VINE VOICE on May 31, 2008
Format: Paperback
This interesting book gives an introduction to virology and explains how infectious disease, in particular viral epidemic diseases, has changed human history. It describes the often heroic efforts of scientists and virologists who pioneered their identification, pathogenesis, and prevention through vaccination. The next few paragraphs will give some perspective on the importance of these efforts and the effect infectious disease has had upon human history (mostly based on the content of this book).

Small pox killed 300-500 million people in the twentieth century alone. That is about 7-12% of everyone who died in the 20th century and more than four times more deaths than caused by all the wars during the 20th century. Since 1979 not a single person has died from small pox. Small pox is an example of a success story. Other amazing success stories are the conquest over poliomyelitis, yellow fever, and measles.

Hygiene and modern medicine have together with other technological and scientific progress enabled the human population on this planet to grow from half a billion to six and a half billion people in a few hundred years, at the same time as it has improved the human condition immensely. It used to be the world wide norm that more than half of the kids died before adulthood and the average life span was 30 years or less. Not even the worst countries in the world today are that miserable. It is clear that the fight against infectious disease has greatly altered the human condition and history. It is also the major reason why we worry so much about heart disease and cancer today.

In the past migrations and conquests often resulted in plagues that changed the course of history.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a good book that unfortunately starts out in a very forbidding manner with a difficult (at least for me) introduction to the principles of virology in Chapter 1 followed by the principles of immunology in Chapter 2, but then gets very readable. The material on smallpox and yellow fever is fascinating. Oldstone leaves it unclear whether mad cow disease is caused by a miss-manufactured prion protein or by a virus: Others books, including Richard Rhodes' Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague (1997), clearly cite the cause as being faulty prion protein production in the brain.

This is not for the squeamish. I confess that there were twenty or so pages on polio that I skipped, not wanting to relive that sadness, although of course the defeat of polio is one of the great triumphs in the history of medicine. Incidentally, the title owes something to the classic Rats, Lice and History, by Hans Zinsser, first published in 1934, a book that has enjoyed a well-deserved and remarkable commercial success not easily duplicated.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 9, 2001
Format: Paperback
It is a shame that the decisive impact of communicable diseases on history are typically underplayed in school books. This information needs to be known by every educated person. Dr. Oldstone's book provides both an account of medical progress and its context in social and cultural history. In meeting these goals, this book succeeds admirably. Dr. Oldstone writes well. His expertise shines in his understanding of critical events in scientific development, and his knowledge of the contributions of both well-known and obscure scientists indicates a mastery of the breadth of the field. This scholarship is enhanced by his personal interactions with many of the 20th Century's great virologists, many of them familiar names, including Salk, Sabin, Montagnier, Gallo and Enders, among others. Some of the best illustrations in the books come from Dr. Oldstone's own research.
The discussion of the impact of viral disease on wars and public life are both factual and pointed. Having recently read, Jared Diamond's important book, "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies", I find Dr. Oldstone's exposition of many of the same stories support Diamond's conclusions while providing important additional information. I have read many other discussions of the disastrous impact of smallpox virus on Native Americans, but Oldstone goes beyond reporting victimization to point out that the Chiefs of the Five Nations were astute enough to be among the first to adopt Edward Jenner's discovery and vaccinate their own people, while in Europe resistance to this new approach continued. The Chiefs sent Jenner a letter and a ceremonial belt in thanks for his discovery.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Sammy Madison on July 28, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I ordered three books on similar subjects, "Viruses, Plagues, and History", "Man and Microbes", and "Plagues and Peoples" at the same time. Each book has something different to recommend it. My least favorite was "Plagues and Peoples". The writing was pompous and cumbersome, and while the thesis of the book, that man's relationship to society and our planet is pathogenic, is interesting, it can be conveyed in one sentence. There is not a lot of readable material about the actual history of disease in the book. I got a lot more by far out of both "Man and Microbes" and "Viruses, Plagues, and History". Both of these books are filled with interesting facts and stories of how disease has impacted human history. I will definitely keep and re-read both books. As an earlier reviewer noted, the first section of "Viruses, Plagues, and History", entitled "Introduction to the Principles of Virology" is pretty intimidating. If the science bothers the reader too much, it really doesn't hurt to skip this chapter. Maybe the rest of the book will interest the non-scientific reader enough so he will go back and read this section later. Part Two of the book is entitled "Success Stories". It contains fascinating and very graphic descriptions of some very bad diseases and interesting stories about the effects these diseases have had on the course of history. Part Three is "Present and Future Challenges", about some of the newly emerging diseases that are making headlines today. The author is a true professional in the biomedical field, and in his preface, he tells about reading "Microbe Hunters" in junior high and how it inspired him in his education and career to meet many of the foremost experts on viral diseases and become one himself. I think this is a very, very interesting book.
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