Epidemics and Society (2020)

Book Review

Snowden, F. (2020). Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press. 582pp.

Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society is a comprehensive examination of major epidemics in global history. The book does not provide a sweeping analysis of all epidemics, given lack of space and time, and acknowledges in the introduction the need to focus on specific changes in epidemiology, public and global health, political structures, and social welfare that have contributed to the development of and response to epidemics in human societies. Snowden focuses on plague, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, malaria, polio, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and ebola to paint a vast portrait of the development of epidemics. The book excels at describing key historical frames, particularly how medical knowledge has evolved as a result of pandemic crisis. The paperback issue contains a preface about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and forewarns that much can be learned from reflecting on past epidemics.

Readers will enjoy the book in sections – for fear of intellectual fatigue, given the tome’s breadth. Nevertheless, Epidemics and Society aspires to make the content accessible for the general public and thus maintains an accessible register that provides greater nuance to an otherwise daunting subject. The book is richly research (as part of years of teaching materials for coursework at Yale University), which will serve both the lay reader and the scholar well in their endeavours to understand ongoing epidemics in society. A highly recommended text for those new to the field of infectious disease or interested in learning more about the social history of health and illness.