10 Nonfiction Books about Real Life Epidemics and Pandemics

We are living through history being made, and not necessarily in the nicest way. There can’t have been many of you that didn’t learn about Spanish Flu in school, a pandemic that swept the world one hundred years ago. Through time we have seen various pandemics, but they are rarely global. Now we are living through the biggest global pandemic for more than one hundred years with the entire world affected or infected.

Interestingly in retrospect they know that the Spanish Flu was the first of these ‘bird flu’ type respiratory viruses, with the looming war and global travel for soldiers the catalyst for spreading it around. It almost certainly started in Kansas on a hog farm, but as the American soldiers came to Europe and started dying, wartime reporting restrictions hid the true toll. Eventually Spain would report on the awful pandemic, and the virus would forever become known as the Spanish Flu.

You can learn more about that pandemic in the first book in our list, and here are some other recommendations too!

The Great Influenza – John M. Barry

I discovered this book after reading this essay in the Smithsonian, and it inspired the entire blog. Barry’s account of the pandemic is in depth and fascinating, showing a world dealing with similar, yet quite different challenges to what we are facing today.

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Typhoid Mary – Judith Walzer Leavitt

She was an Irish immigrant cook. Between 1900 and 1907, she infected twenty-two New Yorkers with typhoid fever through her puddings and cakes; one of them died. Tracked down through epidemiological detective work. Her story is tragic, but it does highlight the importance of the track and trace methods recommended by eminent scientists and doctors.

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And the Band Played On – Randy Shilts

Upon it’s first publication twenty years ago, And The Band Played on was quickly recognized as a masterpiece of investigative reporting. An international bestseller, a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and made into a critically acclaimed movie, Shilts’ expose revealed why AIDS was allowed to spread unchecked during the early 80’s while the most trusted institutions ignored or denied the threat.

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Stacking the Coffins – Ida Milne

A social history of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic’s effects on an Ireland where normal patterns of life were disturbed by war and the growing separatist movement. The influenza seemed to disrupt every aspect of Irish life – culture, economics, politics, medicine and family life.

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Polio, an American Story – David Oshinsky

Here David Oshinsky tells the gripping story of the polio terror and of the intense effort to find a cure, from the March of Dimes to the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines–and beyond.

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Pale Rider – Laura Spinney

In 1918, the Italian-Americans of New York, the Yupik of Alaska and the Persians of Mashed had almost nothing in common except for a virus–one that triggered the worst pandemic of modern times and had a decisive effect on the history of the twentieth century.

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The Private Science of Louis Pasteur – Gerald L. Geison

In The Private Science of Louis Pasteur, Gerald Geison has written a controversial biography that finally penetrates the secrecy that has surrounded much of this legendary scientist’s laboratory work.

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The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson

It’s the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

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Fever – Sonia Shah

In The Fever, journalist Sonia Shah sets out to deliver a timely, inquisitive chronicle of malaria and its influence on human lives. Through the centuries, she finds, we’ve invested our hopes in a panoply of drugs and technologies, and invariably those hopes have been dashed.

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Superbugs – Matt McCarthy

Drug-resistant bacteria — known as superbugs — are one of the biggest medical threats of our time. Here, a doctor, researcher, and ethics professor tells the exhilarating story of his race to beat them and save countless lives.

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We hope you find some good suggestions there and we’ll be back with more recommendations lists soon. If you want to ensure you never miss any of these, subscribe now.



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