Disease and Medicine in History

by Jennifer K.

I love a good disease book. What (you may ask) makes a good disease book?

First of all, I want to learn what the disease does to the human body. In clearly understandable layman’s terms, tell me about the disgusting symptoms, the horrifying rate of transmission, the tragic death toll. Anecdotes full of suffering and bodily emissions welcome.

Then, I want history: how long have we known about this disease? How has it influenced world events, changed the culture, altered the way we think? Has fear of this disease entered the realm of myth and folklore? And what of the fight against this disease? Have humans been creative, or brilliant, or monstrous in trying to find ways to defeat this illness?

A book that has all of that – now that’s a good disease book.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the role of illness and medicine throughout history, you should check out these gems.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic– and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

by Steven Johnson

This book begins as the story of one cholera epidemic in one city: London, 1854. Johnson describes the way the disease, living in the city’s water supply, ravaged the people in the crowded neighborhood of SoHo. No one knew what caused the illness or what connected the cases, until one doctor solved the mystery. The result of this doctor’s research changed the way cities are planned, the way cities are lived in, and the nature of scientific inquiry itself.





Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

by Bill Wasik

Surely no disease is scarier than rabies. A virus that is transmitted by a bite and that literally drives the victim mad, rabies was, for most of history, the rare disease that was always fatal. Even now that it’s curable, legends about how horrifying the treatment is (I remember playground rumors dozens of injections to the stomach – not true, apparently). The authors argue that fear of this virus is the foundation of our myths about zombies and vampires.





Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution

by Holly Tucker

The blood transfusion is now a common procedure, one that regularly saves lives. But where did the idea come from, the idea that blood from one person can go into the veins of another? How did we figure out how it works? The answer is almost unbelievably fascinating, a more-gruesome-than-fiction tale of medical arrogance, scientific competitiveness, and murder.






Want more books about disease and medicine through history? Browse my list below.


Do you love to read about history? Tell us about your favorites in the comments!

Tags: , ,


6 responses to “Disease and Medicine in History”

  1. C French says:

    Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating and well researched novel about the plague. I highly recommend it.

  2. Jenny says:

    I love this list, and I would also recommend Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. This book explores not only the short presidency of James Garfield and profiles his assassin, but also delves deeply into the intriguing circumstances of Garfield’s death from lack of anti-septic practices. A tragedy, since Joseph Lister who pioneered antiseptic surgery was alive and well and publishing his findings. Sadly, Garfield’s doctor was not interested and only created a worse situation for Garfield. The details are very specific.

  3. Readiculous says:

    I agree with you, C French! Year of Wonders is a fiction novel, but it accurately explains what was behind the spread of the disease, and highlights all the gory details of the symptoms.

  4. Lindsey A. says:

    I recently listened to the “The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague” from Great Courses and it was filled with information… and I’m kind of obsessed with bubonic plague so I already knew a lot! What a great topic. I’m so fascinated by historical beliefs about disease, like the idea that bad odors were the cause of the plague.

  5. Sheryl Kirby says:

    I love fiction more than nonfiction, medical mysteries such as novels as Robin Cooke are my thing. I read Fever when I was a kid and he’s hooked me since.

  6. Kim says:

    The Family That Couldn’t Sleep by D.T. Max was fascinationing. A great historical, medical mystery.

Leave a reply (comments are moderated before posting)