Go-To Books for Understanding and Surviving a Pandemic

April 15, 2020

BookShelf: Go-To Books for Understanding and Surviving a Pandemic

By Bob Wyss

Thucydides reported extensively about the horrors of the plague in ancient Athens in Book 2 of his “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Daniel Defoe wrote in “Journal of the Plague Year” that London’s lock-down during a 17th century plague attack could not prevent one in five residents from dying.  

Book authors for centuries now have been building a priceless library, one that I believe can provide perspective and insight into the global COVID-19 pandemic we now face. 

Scholars in recent days have rushed to produce lists of books, scholarly articles, popular films and other resources. I have seen some of these lists double and triple in volume just in a few days. Several are posted at the end of this article.

My purpose here is more refined: to provide some of the best non-fiction books, defined by topic, that can provide insight into diseases and epidemics.


We can see how environmentalism

and public health have become so 

closely entwined at times in the past.


In reviewing the list we can see how environmentalism and public health have become so closely entwined at times in the past. Also, how science has so often struggled to be understood.

Jill Lepore, writing recently in The New Yorker, pointed out that the British were so terrified of accounts of the plague in the 1600s that they banned all publications. It was pointless; the terror was obvious for all to see. 

The more we learn about our past encounters, the better we will be able to face and report on it in future days. As Lepore wrote, “Reading is an infection, a burrowing into the brain; books contaminate, metaphorically and even microbiologically.”

Here are what I think are the most relevant offerings:



And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic” (Randy Shilts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987): Considered an investigative journalism masterpiece, Shilts' exposé revealed why AIDS was allowed to spread unchecked during the early ’80s while the most trusted institutions ignored or denied the threat. It changed and framed how to deal with AIDS.


Bubonic Plague

The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco” (Marilyn Chase. New York: Random House, 2003): A veteran Wall Street Journal science reporter described the frightening outbreak of bubonic plague in late Victorian San Francisco in 1900. Chase wrote about how the city struggled and ultimately triumphed over perhaps the most frightening and deadly of all scourges. Also see “Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague” (David K.  Randall. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2019).



The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World” (Steven Johnson. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006): In the summer of 1854, London became the perfect breeding ground for an outbreak of cholera because it lacked such basic infrastructures as garbage removal, clean water and sewers. This is the story of how a  physician and a local curate were spurred to action, solved a pressing medical riddle and established the foundation for the science of epidemiology.



The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” (John M. Barry.  New York: Penguin Books, 2005): At the height of World War I, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It marked the first collision between science and epidemic disease. Also see: “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World” (Laura Spinney. New York: Public Affairs/Hachette, 2017).



Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond” (Sonia Shah. Macmillan, 2016): Shah explored the origins of epidemics, drawing parallels between cholera, one of history’s most deadly and disruptive pandemic-causing pathogens, and the new diseases that stalk humankind today. The book pointed out that in the past fifty years, more than three hundred infectious diseases either emerged or reemerged. Ninety percent of epidemiologists predicted a deadly pandemic within two generations.



Polio: An American Story” (David M. Oshinsky. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005):   Oshinsky wrote about 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. It featured a suspenseful race for the cure, and wove a dramatic tale centered on the furious rivalry between Salk and Sabin.


Public Health

A History of Public Health” (George Rosen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958): Considered the classic and authoritative account of the history of public health. Rosen narrated the development of public health in classical Greece, imperial Rome, England, Europe, the United States and elsewhere. He also illuminated the lives and contributions of the field’s great figures.


Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality since 1600” (David S. Jones. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004): Jones examined the epidemics that decimated native populations in North America, from the spread of smallpox in Puritan times to the tuberculosis campaigns on the Sioux reservations in the early 20th century. Some considered the epidemics markers of social injustice; others exploited epidemics to obtain land, fur and as grounds for “civilizing” American Indians.



The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics” (Stephen Coss. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016): Medical history was changed by Cotton Mather, the great Puritan preacher, and Zabdiel Boylston, a doctor whose name is on one of Boston’s avenues. Coss described how, during the worst smallpox epidemic in Boston history, Mather convinced Doctor Boylston to implant him with smallpox matter, resulting in public outrage. Also see: “Pox: An American History” (Michael Willrich. Penguin History of American Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2011).



Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical” (Anthony Bourdain. New York: Bloomsbury, 2001): The amazing story of Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary, who somehow eluded authorities in the early 1900s as she spread her pestilence as a cook in some of New York City’s finer homes. 


Yellow Fever

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History” (Molly Caldwell Crosby. New York: Berkley Books, 2006): In 1900, the United States sent three doctors to Cuba to discover how yellow fever was spread. There, they launched one of history's most controversial human studies. Crosby also detailed how yellow fever paralyzed governments, halted commerce, quarantined cities, moved the U.S. capital and altered the outcome of wars.


More Resources

  • Pandemics in Context: This site has a wealth of links to various resources related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was produced by the Environment & Society Portal, which provides resources to educators and the public on environment issues related to the humanities. It is run by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society and the University of Munich.
  • Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus: A crowd-sourced site with an extremely extensive and deep list of books and resources on the literary, historical, philosophical and cultural aspects of the health crisis. Growing rapidly. Produced by professors at Northeastern University.
  • History of Outbreaks Collection: Links to journal articles related to past diseases and epidemics. Produced by Oxford University Press and available for free through April 30, 2020.

Bob Wyss, SEJournal’s EJ Academy editor, is a professor of journalism emeritus from the University of Connecticut and the author of three books including the textbook “Covering the Environment: How Journalists Cover the Green Beat.”

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 15. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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