How scientists saved humanity from the deadliest infectious diseases—and what we can do to prepare ourselves for future epidemics.
After the unprecedented events of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when deadly diseases were a routine part of life. It is harder still to fathom that the best medical thinking at that time blamed these diseases on noxious miasmas, bodily humors, and divine dyspepsia. This all began to change on a day in April 1676, when a little-known Dutch merchant described bacteria for the first time. Beginning on that day in Delft and ending on the day in 1978 when the smallpox virus claimed its last known victim, Ending Epidemics explains how we came to understand and prevent many of our worst infectious diseases—and double average life expectancy.
Ending Epidemics tells the story behind “the mortality revolution,” the dramatic transformation not just in our longevity, but in the character of childhood, family life, and human society. Richard Conniff recounts the moments of inspiration and innovation, decades of dogged persistence, and, of course, periods of terrible suffering that stir individuals, institutions, and governments to act in the name of public health. Stars of medical science feature in this drama, but lesser-known figures also play a critical role. And while the history of germ theory is central to this story, Ending Epidemics also describes the importance of everything from sanitation improvements and the discovery of antibiotics to the development of the microscope and the syringe—technologies we now take for granted.
Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer for Smithsonian magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications, and a past Guggenheim Fellow. Among his many books are The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth; Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals; The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide; and, most recently, House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. Conniff has been a commentator on NPR's Marketplace and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.
“A taut interrogation of the centuries of labor that protected us from pathogens, a bitter lament for how quickly we abandoned our awareness of risk, and a stirring call for a new generation of disease fighters to take up the battle. Ending Epidemics drives home the post-COVID lesson of the peril of complacency.”
Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken, Superbug and Beating Back the Devil; Senior Fellow, Center for the Study of Human Health, Emory University
“Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler's eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.”
Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer
“A timely and highly readable account of humanity's struggles and progress in the fight against infectious disease. Set across three centuries, from the birth of immunology to the antibiotic revolution, Conniff draws on the personal stories behind these great medical and scientific leaps. A fascinating read with powerful lessons for tackling today's—and indeed future—epidemics.”
Peter Piot, Former Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; author of No Time to Lose and AIDS: Between Science and Politics
“A dramatic, page-turning account of the grim, never-ending war waged by infections on humankind. And how we fought back, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.”
Paul A. Offit, Professor of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; author of You Bet Your Life—From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccinations, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation
"[A] highly readable history of epidemic diseases and vaccinologists, from the first description of bacteria in 1676 to the eradication of smallpox in 1978."
“Conniff gives us the development of immunology and antibiotics —famously the work of Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, Robert Koch and Paul Ehrlich—in easy-to-swallow chunks.”