Deadly Companions: How microbes shaped our history Paperback – 22 Jan 2009
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Admirably clear and engaging. (BBC History)
About the Author
Dorothy Crawford is Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of Edinburgh, where she is also Assistant Principal for the Public Understanding of Medicine. She was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to medicine and higher education. Books by the same author: The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses
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At times it reads almost like a war as viruses, bacteria and fungi rapidly mutate and sometimes collaborate to defeat our immune systems. I have a biological background but learned a lot about the latest microbiological research which is revealing just how well these microbes are doing in infecting us to their benefit. After reading this book I feel more alarmed at just how vulnerable we are to new microbes evolving with lethal power, but it also made me think more about how to avoid helping them by,for example, taking unnecessary antibiotics or failing to complete a course of treatment.
Parasites are given a good mention. The various types of Malaria species are discussed, and their interaction with humans across the generations are mentioned. I was fascinated by the section on the Schistosome fluke. The causative agent of sleeping sickness, Trypanosoma Brucei Brucei, is included.
The great plagues of history (Anthens, Antonine, Justinian, Black Death and the Renaissance plauge) are given a good mention. A discussion of whether the Black Death was caused by Yersinia Pestis was present, although I though this could have been done in greater depth.
A good thing was the inclusion of the Irish Potato Famine, and thus the point was well made that non-human infectious agents can have a devastating effect on humans. This illustrated the point that all organisms on the Earth are in a delicate balance, which is something that must be considered when planning for future societies etc.
The book ends with chapters on how infections can be treated and problems that have arisen with respect to antibiotic resistance. Possible novel solutions to this arising from genomic analysis are briefly mentioned.
This books presents a brief but valuable introduction to infectious diseases.
This is an easy read, but there is little to get excited about. The biological content is not very detailed, although beefed up by a few diagrams. Much of the argument concerning the historical progression of diseases is recycled from Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs and Steel', and more weakly expressed besides.
Sadly, the author of this book couldn't tell a good story to save her life. She is extremely well-informed, very good at explaining the microbiology of the illnesses she describes, and if you read this book you will be a better educated person. But that simplicity of expression comes at a price. The written style is flat, there is no sense of narrative, no story-telling, and some gripping stories pass by with all the excitement of an auditor's report. The overall effect is of a university lecturer trying very hard to make a dull subject interesting; in doing so this book almost succeeds in making a fascinating subject dull.
It may be a matter of taste: here is a scientist writing about history. Perhaps I would have preferred to read a book written by a historian about science.
But it's interesting enough. I don't regret having bought it. And I'm now *much* better informed about Yersina Pestis.
A journey from the beginning of mankind and how they struggled with diseases until recent SARS and flu pandemics.
If you think only war changes the world, read how our deadly companions, smart, sleek and adaptable, gave us the world and life we have today.
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