The Atlas Of Disease by Sandra Hempel

The Blurb On The Back:

The Atlas Of Disease gives a unique perspective on how epidemics have spread throughout history, from the fourteenth-century plague that devastated Europe and the lethal outbreaks of cholera in the nineteenth century, right up to the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s and the catastrophic spread of zika in Brazil.

Interweaving new maps based on the latest available data with historical charts alongside intriguing, often unsettling, contemporary illustrations, this extraordinary book plots the course of some of the most virulent and deadly pandemics around the world.  Discover how diseases have changed the course of history, stimulated advances in medicine and how mapping has played a key role in prevention and cure, shaping countless lives. 

You can order The Atlas Of Disease by Sandra Hempel from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Sandra Hempel is a medical journalist whose illustrated book gives a potted history and description of 20 diseases that used to (and in some cases, still) ravage the world.  It’s a weird mix of history, geography and science (some of which I knew from elsewhere) but there were nuggets of new information here and while the maps are a little haphazard and poorly designed, they do give a sense of the devastation caused by these diseases.

The book divides the 20 diseases into 4 sections based on how they’re transmitted:

AIRBORNE: diphtheria, influenza, leprosy, measles, scarlet fever, SARS, smallpox; and tuberculosis.

WATERBORNE: cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.

INSECTS & ANIMALS: malaria, plague, typhus, yellow fever, and zika.

HUMAN TO HUMAN: polio, ebola, HIV and AIDS, and syphilis.

Each disease gets a description of its symptoms and a history of what we know of its origins and development of its treatment.  Some of the information in these sections I knew from elsewhere but there were still some interesting nuggets that I took away from it, for example while I knew the famous story of John Snow (the father of epidemiology who first identified a cholera spread in Soho by tracking it to a specific pump by working out which victims lived near by) but I hadn’t realised he’d previously used the same technique to work out which of 2 water companies in South London was responsible for a cholera outbreak there and that the Soho pump was a refinement of his theory.  However it’s weird how each section is written with no reference to the others, so there’s some repetition of information (e.g. the same introduction is given to the Persian physician Rhazes in 3 different sections) and there are also some typographic mistakes, which I found a little irritating.

Each section has its own maps to illustrate different aspects of the disease – usually how it spread geographically during pandemic waves or to illustrate the number of cases during particular periods of time.  Being honest, I’m not really sure what the maps bring to the book.  There is some interest to be had in seeing just how prevalent some diseases are and in which countries but some of the information being presented is just weird (e.g. there’s a map showing the spread of syphilis between 1492 and 1520) and I’d actually have preferred maps showing the current spread of some of these diseases given that, with the exception of smallpox, they all still continue to have an effect.

Given that I was reading this during the COVID-19 outbreak, I was very interested in 2 of the most recent disease epidemics – SARS and zika – and I did feel that I took a lot away from it in terms of understanding what happened during.  However, this is really one of those books that you need to approach as a broad overview and as such, it does a perfectly fine job.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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