Over the past year, we’ve probably all thought a lot more about viruses than we previously did. At least, we all know now what it’s like to live in a world where a new virus has emerged. But amidst all of our working from home, wearing masks, and avoiding human contact, we haven’t really learned anything from these experiences about what viruses are, where they come from, and how they’ve historically affected human life. Over the past few months, I decided I wanted to know a lot more and resolved to give myself a crash course on the history of viruses. This meant both learning where viruses come from –their history –and the relationship between humans and viruses –our shared history. My reading so far has touched on both aspects.
A good place to start to learn about the nature of viruses themselves is The Invisible Enemy by Dorothy H. Crawford. This book is slightly old (the most recent edition dates to 2003), but it’s to the point and contains diagrams explaining scientific concepts. If you’re not sure of the exact difference between a virus and a bacterium, this book has you covered in the first chapter. Beyond that, Crawford introduces the reader to specific viruses and how they work, and their discovery. Though it came out too early to cover SARS and Covid-19, this book offers all that the layperson needs to start understanding viruses.
Is that not enough for you? How about a more recent, much longer book that touches much closer to Covid? If you read Crawford’s book and found yourself wanting to know more about the origins of such viruses as Hendra, Ebola, and HIV, look no further than Spillover by David Quammen. This book is exclusively about “zoonotic” viruses, human infections that originate in the animal kingdom, of which Covid-19 is one. As a science journalist, Quammen has traveled around the world, talking with virus experts who study and combat our most deadly viruses. This book not only covers the science of viruses as Crawford does, but also gives us a welcome look at the human side of viruses – both in introducing us to their unfortunate victims, as well as the heroic individuals who fight them. Quammen’s stories can be frightening (the SARS chapter is scarily prescient of Covid-19), but it’s also very comforting to know that every new virus has a crack team of worldwide scientists and doctors working tirelessly to stop them.
If emerging scourges are too scary, though, you can always turn to reading about older, better understood viruses, such as rabies, which you have a statistically very low risk of contracting. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy is an excellent overview of this infamous virus. Here we learn of the earliest mentions of rabies in human history, its cultural impact, how its vaccine came into existence, and how in recent years it has become curable in some cases. We learn fascinatingt hings here, like how rabies may have created the idea of monsters such as werewolves and vampires, and we hear in detail the story of how Louis Pasteur created the first rabies vaccine. More soberingly, we also learn of an outbreak of rabies in Bali in recent years,which serves as a reminder that we can’t afford to ignore viruses, regardless of where they are. Dog lovers may want to avoid certain parts of this book though, as the history of dogs and this particular virus is not a happy one. Nonetheless,this book reminds us that humanity has (nearly) triumphed over this once universally deadly virus.
After all of this, if you need hope and humor most of all, try Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright. While she covers viruses such as polio and the 1918 flu, Wright does not stick exclusively to viruses, and also covers things like bubonic plague, leprosy, and typhoid, always with a particular focus on the people who fought these diseases. She also keeps it light by remaining humorous throughout, and is not above making digs at the people she’s talking about if they strike her as overly old-fashioned or eccentric. Sure, it’s lacking gravitas, but it’s very readable, and the other books I’ve mentioned are plenty serious. It’s certainly not offensive though, as Wright avoids being cavalier about still active plagues such as HIV. Overall, it’s a very digestible account of terrifying periods in human history, with enough heroic and insightful figures to make you, maybe, a little less scared about plagues of the present and future.
And that’s as far as I’ve come at this point. These are just the books I’ve found so far. There’s so much more out there, so many more viruses, so much more history. So see for yourself what you can find! Viruses may be scary, but their history shows heroic humans of every era learning how to understand and combat them. There’s hope yet, and fascinating reading in the meantime!