Skip to main content

The Last Days of Smallpox - Mark Pallen ****

It's very rare that I find a medical popular science book unputdownable (in fact it's my least favourite sub-genre of popular science) - but it's an adjective I'd apply to Mark Pallen's The Last Days of Smallpox. This horrible disease was eradicated worldwide in 1977 - and a story of its background, including the last natural outbreaks in the UK, makes up the opening section of this book, but the main focus is an exploration of the last ever outbreak in the UK in Birmingham in 1978 - one year after the disease was eradicated.

Pallen takes us through in immaculate detail the escape of smallpox from a lab at Birmingham University, the sad cases of Janet Parker, a photographer who worked in the same building and died of smallpox, and Henry Bedson, the microbiologist in charge of the lab who committed suicide as a result of the stress of the outbreak. Pallen covers the possible ways that Parker could have become infected and gives a blow-by-blow account of the court case when the Health and Safety Executive took the University to court over the outbreak.

All of this could have been rather dull, despite the gruesome topic. However, Pallen has a gift for dramatisation and the account, often in the present tense, gives a sense of urgency and reality to the narrative, in a way that I've rarely seen in a science book. A few years ago I was taken on a tour of Porton Down to record a radio programme and remember the stomach churning frisson of looking through glass at people handling deadly diseases. I was taken straight back to that corridor and the feeling of tension I felt there by Pallen's excellent descriptive writing.

The book is self-published, but has been proof read and copy edited well. It only really shows in the print size, which is smaller than I would have liked. A publisher might have tightened up a few parts, notably the account of the court case, which perhaps went into a little too much detail, but if you like legal stories (which I do), it was no problem.

The combination of the account of the defeat of the deadly virus that inspired the process of vaccination with the particular and very human happenings at Birmingham in 1978 makes this book a real winner.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…