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Simon & Schuster, $59.99
It will be of no surprise to readers familiar with the erudite polymathy of Simon Schama that much of his introduction to Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations consists of a potted biography of renowned and intermittently notorious 18th-century French writer Voltaire.
Fascinating stuff to be sure, especially in Schama’s dab hands, as Voltaire’s fluctuating fortunes see him hurled into the Bastille, exiled to England, before finding himself an honoured guest of Louis XV at Versailles, preparing a divertissement for the King’s wedding in 1725.
Simon Schama has written a grand tour of the history of vaccination.Credit: Eddie Knox
And diverting as all this is, Voltaire makes his cameo in Schama’s grand tour of the history of vaccination because two years earlier the philosopher and satirist had nearly died of smallpox and, while reflecting afterwards upon the ghastly experience and barbaric “remedies” to which he had been subjected, became one of the first writers to extol the virtues of inoculation.
Like most of his era, Voltaire had not been the beneficiary of the safe and simple prophylactic that has, as of 1980, eradicated the disease from the face of the earth, but not before leaving untold millions of disfigured corpses and horribly scarred survivors in its wake for millennia.
Schama’s history of vaccination is a delight – he brings the subject to life through the intertwined biographies of some of the most remarkable, courageous and at times obsessive characters in the history of medicine. While your Listers, Pasteurs and Jenners are all here, they seem like extras in a drama where centre stage is the domain of heroes of whom most readers will have never heard.
The structure of Foreign Bodies rests on a tripod of three catastrophic diseases, maladies that have shaped human history more profoundly than any army or emperor: smallpox, cholera, and plague.
And in all three cases, he documents the vaccines and treatments that were eventually developed, by trial and error, inspiration and sheer hard work. The reader shares Schama’s indignation at the self-satisfied determination, both by the medical and political establishments, to thwart the deployment of life-saving treatments at every turn.
Received wisdom, jingoism and outright racism on the part of European academic institutions, colonial overlords, warring nations and unapologetic anti-Semites ensured Voltaire would be two centuries dead before humanity had even a semblance of control over these contagions.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) made an amazing discovery in a Sofia bath house.Credit: Joseph Highmore
The characters we meet as this unedifying struggle unfolds range from the delightful to the delinquent.
One delight is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose “famous good looks had had her toasted as the ‘Beauty’ of The Kit Club” until losing her eyelashes and allure through a bout of the pox in 1715. Two years later she accompanied her husband Edward, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and marvelled at the flawless skin of the naked women she shared time with in a Sofia hammam.
She discovered that it was a long-standing practice for older women to make small needle pricks in the arms and legs of young girls and rub them with the remains of pustules from a person with smallpox.
The spotless women of the bathhouse had her convinced, and she at once had her six-year-old son inoculated. But despite clear evidence of its efficacy and safety, it would be many decades before the procedure was widely accepted.
Of both cholera and plague perhaps the greatest and most courageous vaccination advocate and practitioner was Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930) of Odessa; then in the Russian Empire, now a battleground in Ukraine. Refused a professorship in Russia due to his Jewish faith, he worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where in 1892 (a year in which a third of the 200,000 pilgrims in Mecca for the Haj died of the disease) he famously and courageously injected himself with his own vaccine for cholera, with no ill effects beyond some local soreness.
This 1893 engraving shows Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930) vaccinating a woman against cholera at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.Credit:
In 1893 Haffkine took his vaccines (first cholera, then plague) to India, where despite the colonial medical establishment slashing his budgets and ridiculing his methods, he and his team protected hundreds of thousands of men and women, of every class and religion.
In 1902 his assistant dropped a plague needle in the village of Malkowal and continued using it, resulting in 19 fatalities. The British saw their chance and fired their “Russian Jew”.
While the war on smallpox was finally won, cholera and plague remain deadly threats in parts of the world. As Schama concludes with his post Covid-19 wrap-up, there is no post Covid-19. Contagious disease will always be with us. As humans multiply, stealing more territory (and flesh, and scales) from everything from monkeys to terrapins, viruses and bacteria will continue to jump the species barrier, mutate, and find us very tasty.
And the fearmongers and gullible will continue to blame demons, Jews, and 5G phone towers, while calling for the heads of the likes of Waldemar Haffkine and Anthony Fauci.
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