Monday, June 15, 2009

Book Review: Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox by Jonathan Tucker

Scourge is quite simply the first smallpox-related book that I have enjoyed from beginning to end. Jonathan Tucker truly pulls off a remarkable feat, synthesizing the vast amount of literature into a taut, compelling account of the history of smallpox, the most terrible disease ever to plague mankind. At its core, Scourge is a comprehensive and fairly neutral account of the history of smallpox, from early epidemics in Europe and America to the unparalleled efforts of the WHO eradication campaign to the contemporary debate regarding the fate of the remaining smallpox strains.

Many readers, upon opening Scourge for the first time may wonder: Why do people still care? Wasn’t smallpox eradicated? Tucker answers these questions from the very start with a hypothetical scenario on death row, a potent metaphor for the contemporary debate on whether or not to destroy the remaining smallpox strands. It is a simple device that serves to remind the reader of the current relevancy of smallpox, which helps to support the book in its recounting of early history. He begins the historical account with speculations on the role of smallpox in early civilizations and darts through an account of the epidemics in Europe and America during the 18th century as well as Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine.

These events, however, are merely meant to be a primer for the heart of Scourge, which is the discussion of smallpox in the 20th century onward. In the first part of this discussion Tucker devotes full attention to the massive WHO eradication campaign, detailing its early efforts in West and Central Africa to the final push in India and Bangladesh. Tucker wisely anchors the story of the eradication campaign to the personal journey of its director, D.A. Henderson. His rise from an officer of the Epidemiological Intelligence Service to director of the smallpox eradication campaign is rife with ambition and unwitting betrayal, as the unexpected acceptance of his combined smallpox/measles vaccination program proposal strains the resources of the EIS and almost destroys his relationship to his superior, Dr. Alexander Langston. Henderson’s story, as well as the other stories of the individuals involved in the eradication campaign convincingly puts a human face to this chapter in the smallpox story.

The second half of this discussion, focusing on smallpox and biological warfare is compelling as well, although the horrific content would arguably stand on its own in lesser hands. He retraces in detail the Soviet Union’s intentions to weaponize smallpox as an agent of biological warfare and the work of the Vector program, which was devoted to the engineering of viruses for such purposes. Once again Tucker wisely anchors this discussion to the personal stories of the people involved, particularly Kanatjan Alibekov’s progression from aspiring physician to scientist in the Vector program to active anti-biological warfare spokesperson. Tucker captures the perpetual sense of dread and uncertainty regarding whether or not the international community will ever reach a consensus regarding the fate of the remaining smallpox strands. By meticulously recreating the dense web of conflicting interests regarding international security and the possibility of rogue sources of smallpox, Tucker ably conveys the moral and ethical ambiguities characteristic of the debate regarding destruction, which is itself a testament to Tucker’s clear, impartial writing style.

This neutrality is both a source of Scourge’s strength and weakness, depending on the reader’s expectations. Those looking for stirring or controversial commentary regarding the debate on smallpox destruction will be disappointed; Tucker refuses to take a stance, offering general recommendations for the future handling of biological warfare but never personally commenting on whether or not the remaining smallpox strands should be destroyed. Yet the cool, uncalculating eye that Tucker casts on events allows history to breathe and compel on its own; as a result, events like the implementation of coercion tactics in the WHO eradication campaign feel very real and devoid of the sensationalism that generally plagues many historical accounts. While the book may be less controversial because of it, Tucker’s lack of bias preserves the already riveting essence of the narrative and is all the better for it.

As far as smallpox books go, Scourge is hard to beat. Packed to the brim with smallpox history yet accessible to any reader, Tucker’s narrative is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in smallpox and stands as one of the best introductions to the subject available.

-Andrew Plan

No comments:

Post a Comment