The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum

Penguin Random House UK| 4 June 2020| 363 pages| Review copy| 3.5*

About the book:

Ever since the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, scientists have dreamed of preventing catastrophic outbreaks of infectious disease. Yet, despite a century of medical progress, viral and bacterial disasters continue to take us by surprise, inciting panic and dominating news cycles. From the Spanish flu and the 1924 outbreak of pneumonic plague in Los Angeles, to the 1930 ‘parrot fever’ pandemic and the more recent SARS, Ebola, Zika and – now – COVID-19 epidemics, the last 100 years have been marked by a succession of unanticipated pandemic alarms.

In The Pandemic Century, Mark Honigsbaum chronicles 100 years of history in 10 outbreaks. Bringing us right up-to-date with a new chapter on COVID-19, this fast-paced, critically-acclaimed book combines science history, medical sociology and thrilling front-line reportage to deliver the story of our times.

As we meet dedicated disease detectives, obstructive public health officials, and gifted scientists often blinded by their own expertise, we come face-to-face with the brilliance and medical hubris shaping both the frontier of science – and the future of humanity’s survival.

My thoughts: I found this quite a difficult book to read and even more difficult to write about, so this is just a short overview.

My review copy of The Pandemic Century is an e-book, that unfortunately does not have the chapter on COVID-19. I think this is a very interesting account of the epidemiology, the medical advances and the history of the diseases. Honigsbaum details each pandemic focusing on the origins of the diseases and the scientific research involved in finding the causes, cures, and the methods of containing them.

But whilst parts of it written in a narrative style are fascinating, other parts are heavy going and dry with too much (for me) detailed information about the scientific research. Since 1940 scientists have identified 335 new human infectious diseases and nearly two thirds of them are from animals – and of these 70% originate in wildlife, mostly from bats! And then there is the threat from microbes – bacteria and rickettsial (ticks, lice, fleas, mites, chiggers, and mammals) organisms. I had to check the meanings of lots of words and abbreviations when I was reading this book! Alarmingly Honigsbaum states that ‘Reviewing the last hundred years of epidemic outbreaks, the only thing that is certain is that there will be new plagues and new pandemics.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

One thought on “The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum

  1. It does sound like rough going, Margaret, even if the information is interesting. I think it’s something I’d likely dip in and out of, if I chose to read it. All of that detail sounds informative, but not something to just pick up and read, if that makes sense.


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