Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Disease and History

As I was trying to figure out what I wanted to read next I stumbled across this book sitting on my shelf, Disease and History by Frederick F. Cartwright in collaboration with Michael D. Biddiss. I decided to give it a try. It is an older book (early 1970s) so some of the terminology is outdated (VD for STD and such) and Cartwright is not a historian proper, but a historian of medicine. This is evident in some of the writing when he appears to jump from one date/subject/place to another in discussion of the same disease without necessarily telling us that he is jumping from date/subject/place to another. However, I have to admit I found much of the book fascinating and actually wanted more details and accounts of disease.

I found the first four chapters to be the most interesting and the most useful. In the first chapter Cartwright discusses diseases and medicine in the ancient world--during the Greek and Roman times. His ability to take seemingly mundane descriptions of disease and discuss possible diagnosis and where the disease may have first started and how it spread is quite remarkable. The second chapter deals with the most famous of all European disease disasters: the Black Death. Rather than just pointing out how many people died and therefore how that changed history, he discusses the effect that the loss of labor caused in England and thus its evolution from the feudal system centuries before the rest of Europe. He also mentions that European Christians tended to blame the Jews for the Black Death and thus pushed them out of Western Europe (where most of them lived) to Eastern Europe. This move, as we know, had its own ramifications in the 20th century. The third chapter discusses syphilis. Syphilis is often mentioned in histories of the Russian peasantry, but I had never read a satisfactory explanation of how it was spread (non-sexually) or where it had come from. Cartwright answered all these questions for me. For that reason, this was the most fascinating chapter for me. He discusses how a disease can change forms when moving from one environment to another and how this occurs. The fourth chapter discusses Napoleon's invasion of Russia and how typhus (not to be confused with typhoid fever, which I didn't know was something different) decimated Napoleon's army before he even got to Russia. He also pointed out that Napoleon's character also contributed to bad decision making with further reduced his Grand Army.

The next two chapters deal with the unexplored (to Europe) sections of the world: the Americas and Africa. These chapters were also interesting, but less so. This is probably because I knew more about this topic than the other topics.

Chapter 7, Queen Victoria and the Fall of the Russian Monarchy, was wholly unconvincing to me. Hemophilia in the only male heir to the throne presented some problems. However, I think Cartwright simplifies the situation, claiming that if Alexis could have ruled (which he couldn't because of his hemophilia) than the Bolsheviks could have never taken power. Yeah, not quite that simple.

Chapter 8 began with a very interesting account of Joan of Arc and possible medical conditions that could have caused her visions. However, the rest of the chapter, titled Mass Suggestion, focused on Hitler's Germany. Cartwright is correct in stating that mass suggestion played an important role in Hitler's Germany, but I didn't feel that this issue really had a place in the larger context of this book.

The final chapter discusses side-effects of prescription drugs and pollution. I didn't actually read all of it because I get enough of that elsewhere. And also because his information is now outdated.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and found it very informative. It presented a whole new way to investigate history and if used, could open up new solutions to historical situations that remain a mystery, or complicate known historical facts.

1 comment:

Jay said...

That sounds really interesting. I love when a book opens your eyes to something you haven't seen or heard before. Something just goes click!