cover image Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases

Patient Zero: A Curious History of the World’s Worst Diseases

Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen. Workman, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-523-51329-1

Physician Kang and historian Pedersen team up again (after Quackery) with a thorough and morbidly funny study of some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Those covered include rabies (so ancient it’s mentioned in the ancient Middle Eastern Laws of Eshnunna), HIV (which likely circulated in the U.S. for nearly a decade before its recognition), and ergotism (a fungus found in bread made with contaminated flour, which made the sick smell like dead mice). Despite the wide-ranging varieties of illnesses, the authors show, some constants appear throughout history, such as the politicization of pandemics and “our voracious human appetites” that push people to disrupt animal habitats (60% of the diseases that affect humans are caused by germs that spread between animals and people). Kang and Pedersen’s conversational tone keeps things moving, and they’re magnificent at reminding readers that, although pathogens will probably continue to “consume ravenously, kill what’s in their way, and adapt,” medicine has come a long way from recommending blood baths, drinking urine, and consuming mercury as treatments. Readers will be swept away by this energetic and enlightening survey. (Nov.)