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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

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Author's response


Plagues: their Origin, History and Future

by Christopher Wills
Harper Collins, 1996

Chris Galley

Galley’s review misses the point, I think, and there seems to be large parts of the book that he either did not read or simply did not understand. The problem, I suspect, has to do with the infamous two cultures and the divide between them.

The point of the book is not that it is supposed to be a history of the plagues written by a historian. It is an examination of plagues, broadly defined, by a scientist. I am interested in how diseases work, why they are sometimes fairly straightforward to eradicate and sometimes virtually impossible, how they have co-evolved with us, and what their connection is with ecological and epidemiological factors. The review touches on none of this.

The reviewer’s incomprehension is nicely summarized by his statement that "it is never fully explained how plagues arise out of an ecological imbalance and the final section discusses the relationship between plagues and less virulent diseases". The final section, which discusses the role of diseases in generating the complexity of the natural world, provides an explanation of the origin and importance of plagues. It does not discuss the relationship between plagues and less virulent diseases, though I spend much of the earlier parts of the book discussing many such relationships. It looks to me as if the reviewer didn’t get to the book’s final section, and if he did, it was quite beyond him.

Finally, the reviewer states that "it is difficult to consider that AIDS is really a plague". A disease that will end up killing far more people than the Black Death is a plague so far as I am concerned.

July 1998

Original review

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