In this continuing series of blog posts, the Editor-in-Chief of Virology, Michael Emerman, recommends books chosen for their descriptions of the roles of viruses and viral disease in the broader contexts of human health, society and history.
This is part 4, with books about Smallpox and about Prions.
It’s hard to find a single best Smallpox book to recommend. The encyclopedic Smallpox and its Eradication by Fenner et al. originally published by the World Health Organization in 1988 has most anything you want to know about the global history and disease of Smallpox. Although it is now out of print, all of the chapters are available online, yet it is not really recreational reading. The historical aspects of Smallpox are expanded upon in The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History by Daniel Hopkins, which describes how key events in world history were influenced by deaths due to Smallpox as well as the fear of infection. Smallpox: The Death of a Disease – The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer by Donald Henderson is a very good book for understanding the technical advances and political maneuvering that were necessary for initiating and completing the eradication of Smallpox. However, the book I liked the best was Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, which tells a unique and fascinating story about how Smallpox spread across the continent of North America in the late 18th century changing the geopolitics of America along the way. Particularly interesting was how the differential practice of variolation – the intentional infection with wildtype smallpox virus to induce protection – among the colonies and in the British, but not American troops, played a major role in Revolutionary War strategy.
Prions are strange. I devote a lecture to them in my virology class, but start out by saying that most of the things I say during class will seem like I am making it up. How the Cows Turned Mad does a wonderful job of describing the history and scientific development of understanding these bizarre agents starting with disease of sheep in the 17th century and ending with infection of humans with a form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (‘Mad Cow disease’). The investigation of prions advanced along parallel tracks between veterinary diseases, a rare human neurological disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), and the investigation of a disease called Kuru spread by cannibalism in the Fore people of New Guinea. Big advances were made when connections were made between these different fields that showed that the agents responsible were infectious and caused similar (but not identical) brain lesions. Later advances in bioassays and purification methods lead to identification of the agent responsible for prion diseases as misfolded proteins encoded by a normal gene present in all mammals. The prose is a bit clunky (at least in the English translation), and it’s a shame that the book has not been updated to include some of the important developments of the last decade, but anyway, this is a very accessible book for virologists to understand the ‘virus-like’ elements of a protein disease that can sometimes transmissible, sometimes inherited, and sometimes spontaneous.
Do you have any favorites that should go on the Virologist’s Bookshelf? Feel free submit them in a comment!