The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

Finished: Feb 17
Rating: A

Don’t do like I did and pick this up thinking it is fiction. First, the language will turn you off–“Wow! This guy writes fiction like nonfiction!” And second, the scare impact is much stronger when you figure out you are reading work of nonfiction. Admittedly, I knew nothing about the Eradication or smallpox or the fact that we may all die of a smallpox-laced weapon and, dear lord, I wish I still didn’t know. But, besides the fact that I am now scared to breathe, it is a well-written documentary of the efforts to eradicate smallpox (in nature) as well as the current efforts to figure out what to do if smallpox should be used as a biological weapon (because the US and the Soviet Union decided to keep some hanging around for a dull day). He relates the smallpox efforts to the 2001 Anthrax scare primarily because many of the scientists involved in various smallpox experiments were also related to the anthrax investigation. It is curious that he does not mention Ivins who was accused by the FBI of creating the anthrax, but does discuss Hatfill, another person of interest who also had his life crushed by the investigations. This is partly a problem with publishing a work so soon after the events (2002).

It is interesting to compare this work with Ghost Map and their arguments for and against cities. Preston writes,

With the growth of agriculture, the human population of the earth swelled and became more tightly packed. Villages grew into towns, and towns grew into cities, and people began to live in crowds in river valleys where the land was fertile. At that point, the human species became an accident with a poxvirus waiting to happen. (p 66)

Johnson has a more Utopian view of large cities, even when that view does not seem to jive with his discussions of cholera, whereas Preston points out that urban dwellings have led to these problems with the spread of infectious diseases. As these two books aren’t works I would normally read, it is interesting to see how the come to such different conclusions about urban life when they are both looking at epidemiological history.

Overall a solid (if scary) investigation into one of the biggest threats to humanity. Read this when you are in a good place in life.

The Ghost Map

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

Finished: Jan. 17
Rating: A-

I have to admit I sometimes enjoy a good epidemiological history. Johnson’s account of the 1854 cholera outbreak in Victorian London is engaging, but the focus isn’t so much cholera as the larger challenges of urban living. Within the vein of epidemiological history, I preferred Marilyn Chase’s The Barbary Plague in which she describes the development of the bubonic plague in Victorian San Francisco from 1900-1909. Of course she had a larger event to describe so the focus stayed solidly on the plague. Johnson’s account seems a bit more scattered, but it reads well. His descriptions of the city and its…um…untidiness are strong enough that you feel like you could be standing (and smelling) in the middle of Soho. He is able to balance his narrative elements against his description of the cholera virus and medical aspects of the story.

As someone who enjoys the beauty of data visualization this book is a good look into the gathering of real life data and the illumination of a problem through the visualization of the data. Unfortunately, the idea of the ghost map felt a bit perfunctory like it was tacked on to the end of the story. Also, his epilogue, on the difficulties and triumphs of modern urban living in relation to sustainability, disease, and nuclear weapons while a fascinating read seem to take the focus away from his original story (and from the ghost map again). Overall it is a good read, especially if you like medical histories.