Amid the glut of diet advice and exercise regimens, books that dive into the history of health and medicine also draw readers. Stephen Johnson’s The Ghost Map (Riverhead, 2006), which examined a 19th-century cholera outbreak in London, has sold more than 146,000 copies in hardcover and trade paper, according to Nielsen BookScan. More recently, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010)—the story of a woman whose cells were cultured, unbeknownst to her or her family, for wide-ranging medical research—has sold more than 1.5 million copies in hardcover and trade paper, per BookScan.

Andy Ward, editor-in-chief at Random House, says that examining the sometimes dark history of medicine, with its now-outmoded assumptions and hazardous techniques, forces us to consider how our era’s approach to health will be regarded in the future. “The question becomes, What are we doing today that we will look back on in 30 years and find similarly unsettling?”

Here are four titles that take readers back decades, even centuries, to deadly epidemics, surgeries gone awry, and more.

American Plagues
Stephen H. Gehlbach , Rowman & Littlefield, Apr.
Tracing the histories of such diseases as smallpox, tuberculosis, and polio, Gehbach draws insights into the challenges of containing an illness—challenges that persist today. In this updated edition of the book, first published in 2004, Gehlbach, a physician who has served in the Epidemic Intelligence Service with the CDC, adds updated information on HIV/AIDS, as well as new chapters dealing with Ebola, the overuse of antibiotics in hospitals, and the controversy over autism and vaccines.

The Next Pandemic
Ali S. Khan, with William Patrick, PublicAffairs, May
Khan, former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the CDC, offers a firsthand account of medical disasters, including anthrax and swine flu outbreaks, and proposes what might be done to prevent their recurrence.

Daniel Kunitz, Harper Wave, July
Covering fitness practices in ancient Greece, Asian martial arts, the founding of the first modern gym in Paris, and more, Kunitz tracks the evolution of human exercise. His exploration leads him to argue that our contemporary approach to fitness, centered as it is on the “big-box gym,” is “detrimental to overall strength and flexibility,” according to Sarah Murphy, the book’s editor. Historical perspectives like those in Lift, she says, “bring a bird’s-eye view to an area that all too often zooms in on the latest advice or promise found in lifestyle magazines.”

Patient H.M.
Luke Dittrich, Random House, Aug.
Dittrich, a journalist, tells the story of Henry Molaison (“H.M.”), a psychiatric patient whose profound amnesia, which he developed after undergoing brain surgery in 1953, has informed much of what we understand about memory today. Dittrich, who first tackled the subject in a piece for Esquire, comes to the story with a personal connection: his grandfather William Beecher Scoville was the neurosurgeon who operated on Molaison.

Beth Skwarecki, Adams Media, Oct.
Skwarecki, a science writer with a background in bioinformatics, examines 50 epidemics throughout history, from the Black Death, which broke out in Europe in the 14th century, to Legionnaires’ disease, the largest outbreak of which occurred in Spain in 2001.

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