Smallpox was once the most feared scourge in the world, claiming the lives of over two million people a year, killing peasants and nobility alike. But by the second half of the twentieth century, smallpox had been reduced to a memory – effectively stamped out of every community around the world. In THE END OF PLAGUES, immunologist John Rhodes explores how scientists, as well as average men and women, made this victory possible, and what it means for the future eradication of diseases from polio to AIDS.
Spanning three centuries, he weaves together the discovery of vaccination, the birth and growth of immunology, and the fight to eradicate the world’s most feared diseases. The story travels from the early nineteenth century foundling voyages, where chains of orphans, vaccinated one by one against smallpox, were sent to protect colonies around the globe, to Jonas Salk’s laboratory where, after decades of research, the polio vaccine finally became a reality. He also reveals the darker side of immunology’s great race, as countries during the Cold War stockpiled smallpox as a biological weapon. Today, aid groups including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization have made the eradication of polio a priority, and Rhodes takes us behind the scenes to witness firsthand the immense global effort underway to make polio the second disease mankind has eradicated.
Renowned immunologist John Rhodes looks at the birth and development of immunology through the development of vaccines – specifically in the treatment of smallpox, polio and tuberculosis. The book loosely follows the history of vaccine development, starting with smallpox and the practice of variolation, which was imported from Turkey and then moving onto Jenner’s work with cowpox. These sections included biographical information on Jenner, which I found fascinating as I’d had no idea of his work as a naturalist and particularly on the cuckoo.
From there Rhodes moves on to other work in the field and the identification of the causes and treatment of diseases such as TB before moving on to focus on the development of a vaccination for polio. These sections were fascinating, with Rhodes taking the time to explain the science in a way that makes it easy for non-practitioners to understand. He also takes time to explain the personalities and rivalries between the main researchers, which helps to give it a more human dimension.
There is a certain amount of time hopping within the book though as Rhodes jumps backwards and forwards between years as he picks up on different research tracks, which did make me a little confused on occasion. There are also points where there’s an irritating lack of detail, e.g. in one section he talks about an Indian minister who was seriously considering stopping the vaccination programme due to perceived lack of progress until a doctor persuaded him not to but at no point names the minister or the doctor who convinced him otherwise. However, Rhodes’ passion for his subject carried me through the pages and I particularly enjoyed the final couple of chapters where he looks at the reasons for opposition to vaccination and considers those arguments with a seriousness that does him credit (and I say that as someone who is pro-vaccination).
All in all, I learnt a lot from reading this and thanks to the extensive end notes there’s a lot more out there for people who want to explore the subject further.
Renowned immunologist John Rhodes looks at the birth and development of immunology through the development of vaccines – specifically in the treatment of smallpox, polio and tuberculosis and then the fight to eradicate smallpox and polio on a global basis. There’s a lot in the book that’s fascinating and I learnt an awful lot about the subject and about people such as Jenner and also about the difficulties in engaging on global vaccination. It is not a perfect book, however, the time jumping irritated me and at times Rhodes skips over details such as names that would have been good to know but that doesn’t detract from what’s a decent read and which makes a technical, scientific subject relatively easy for laymen to understand.
THE END OF PLAGUES was released in the United Kingdom on 22nd October 2013. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the ARC of this book.