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The Pandemic Century

One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and Hubris


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A medical historian narrates the last century of scientific struggle against an enduring enemy: deadly contagious disease.

How can we understand the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ever since the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, scientists have dreamed of preventing such catastrophic outbreaks of infectious disease. Yet, despite a century of medical progress, viral and bacterial disasters continue to take us by surprise, inciting panic and dominating news cycles. In The Pandemic Century, a lively account of scares both infamous and less known, medical historian Mark Honigsbaum combines reportage with the history of science and medical sociology to artfully reconstruct epidemiological mysteries and the ecology of infectious diseases. We meet dedicated disease detectives, obstructive or incompetent public health officials and brilliant scientists; often blinded by their own knowledge of bacteria and viruses—and we see how fear of disease often exacerbates racial, religious and ethnic tensions.

Now updated with a new chapter and epilogue on Coronavirus.

A Financial Times Best Health Book of 2019 and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.


"Mark Honigsbaum does a superb job covering a century’s worth of pandemics and the fears they invariably unleash. The moral of his cogent tale is that the next deadly pandemic is not a matter of if but of when, and preparing for that fact is a far better prescription than reacting with panic, fear, or indifference." — Howard Markel, MD, PhD, George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine and director of the Center for the History of Medicine, University of Michigan

"[A] riveting, vivid history of modern disease outbreaks... A fascinating account of a deeply important topic—for if the past 100 years have taught us anything, it is that new diseases and viral strains will inevitably beset us, no matter how sophisticated science becomes." — Robin McKie, The Observer

"Gripping." — Barbara Kiser, Nature

"Some of the scenes in Mark Honigsbaum’s The Pandemic Century were so vivid they had me drafting movie treatments in my head... Whether familiar or forgotten, parrot fever or Ebola, he finds striking similarities among them. And those similarities ought to make us worried about the next outbreak. If history is any guide, things may not go well." — Carl Zimmer, The New York Times Book Review

"A lively but less than reassuring read for those on exotic travels." — Anjana Ahuja, Financial Times

"Infectious diseases remain among the most urgent health threats we face, but too often are considered something that happens to other people, far away. In our interconnected world, this is no longer true, as Mark Honigsbaum shows. His unique account drives home the human impact of epidemics, and the need for increased preparedness." — Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust

"An engaging and thoughtful journey through some of the world’s greatest medical and social crises in recent decades. Honigsbaum is a worthy historian and guide to these dramatic reminders of human fallibility." — David L. Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine