The calamity of COVID-19 has unleashed a flood of books on the ravages of pandemics past and present. Nicholas Christakis’s “Apollo’s Arrow,” Peter Furtado’s “Plague, Pestilence and Pandemic,” J. David McSwane’s “Pandemic, Inc.,” and David Quammen’s “Breathless” represent just a small sample of that burgeoning literature.
Now comes Simon Schama’s “Foreign Bodies,” whose subtitle seems to promise a distinguished historian’s sweeping, century-spanning dissection of pandemics, vaccines, and public health. That turns out to be misdirection. Schama is a prodigious researcher and an often eloquent stylist. But readers interested in the sociology or epidemiology of plagues, or the science of vaccines, should look elsewhere.
A dense, sprawling hodge-podge of detail and anecdote, “Foreign Bodies” rambles across time and space without sufficient focus or discipline. Its most valuable, if hardly stunning, takeaway: that public-health innovators have always encountered societal resistance, and that some have nevertheless persevered.
Schama, a professor of art history and history at Columbia University, is intrigued by the intersections of colonialism and scientific advancement. And he excels at the close analysis of images that illuminate that relationship. But “Foreign Bodies” lacks narrative coherence, mutating and meandering, via idiosyncratic byways, from a history of pandemics to a portrait of the underappreciated figures who fought them.
The book’s punning title references bacteria and viruses, the vaccines designed to combat them, and such conspiratorial imaginings as Bill Gates’s mythical vaccine nanochip. Schama also uses the term “foreign bodies” to encompass the “suspiciously alien…cosmopolitan elites” who encountered popular disdain as they probed the frontiers of science and public health.
The prologue asserts that “all history is natural history,” a reminder of the zoonotic source of (many) pandemics. Rats and fleas, transmitters of bubonic plague, get their due. Schama’s final chapter pivots weirdly to a celebration of horseshoe crabs, whose blood has been indispensable in safety-testing pharmaceuticals. The crabs, Schama writes, constitute a link in “a single precious chain of connection that we snap at our utmost peril.”
The rest of the book is divided into three parts, on smallpox, cholera, and bubonic plague (in its modern rather than medieval manifestations). Our 20th-century plagues, including the 1918-20 “Spanish flu” pandemic and AIDS, go unexplored.
COVID-19, which triggered the project, merits only cursory discussion. Schama muses on “the grim, still, silence of locked-down streets and squares” overrun by wildlife. And he laments the demonization of Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who became the face of public health restrictions during the pandemic.
Schama sketches the efforts of a variety of lesser-known scientists, physicians, and vaccination pioneers. He admires, for example, Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-century smallpox inoculator “who combined motherly tenderness with coolly reasoning intelligence.” He is more ambivalent about James Lowson, a Scottish physician who, in 1894, identified the first case of bubonic plague in Hong Kong and presided over draconian sanitation measures to quell the epidemic. Schama is less interested in the big names, men such as Edward Jenner (whom historians have credited — inaccurately, Schama suggests — for the smallpox vaccine) and Louis Pasteur.
Schama begins with a discursive set piece on Voltaire and smallpox that devolves into a series of folk inoculation narratives. He never adequately explains why injecting people with the virus was more likely to save than to kill them. His section on cholera opens with his own long-ago purchase of a book, in Paris, on Marcel Proust’s father, Adrien. It turns out that Adrien Proust was a 19th-century public health pioneer who concluded that “infections migrated contagiously.”
After a few chapters, “Foreign Bodies” zooms in on one man in particular: the seemingly indefatigable Russian Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, who developed vaccines against both cholera and plague.
Born in 1860, Haffkine battled pogroms in his native Odessa, worked at Paris’s Pasteur Institute, and tested his vaccines first on himself. He concentrated on vaccinating India, where, Schama writes, “However pure scientific and clinical intentions were (and they were often impure), vaccination and imperialism would never be disentangled.”
Haffkine’s illustrious career was unfairly derailed by a medical disaster. A tetanus contamination of one batch of plague vaccine resulted in 19 deaths, for which Haffkine was blamed. He lost his post as director-in-chief of Bombay’s Plague Research Laboratory as a result. The real culprit seems to have been a village vaccinator who dropped a forceps and failed to properly disinfect it.
Haffkine kept fighting to clear his name, a complicated story that Schama relates in detail. Five years before Haffkine’s death, the laboratory he helped found was renamed the Haffkine Institute. It played a role in creating Covaxin, a COVID-19 vaccine later criticized for irregularities in its manufacturing processes and clinical trials.
Haffkine’s own final, peripatetic years involved fund-raising for Jews in Odessa still being victimized by pogroms and a scheme to resettle Jews to Crimea as farmers. His Jewish religious observance deepened, and his late writings sought to reconcile science and religion. When he died in 1930, at 70, Schama writes, “his story slipped quickly into oblivion.” “Foreign Bodies,” rectifying historical injustice, ushers it back into the light.
FOREIGN BODIES: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations
by Simon Schama
Ecco, 480 pp., $32.99
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.