Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: "Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox" by Jonathan B. Tucker

It seems that this is a popular book in this class, and rightly so. Jonathan Tucker’s “Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox” is a historical tour de force sparingly littered with scientific errors and skillfully dotted by artistic liberties. No conversation is too private, no location too classified for the near-omniscient gaze of The Tucker. The demi-author is able to reproduce a vivid world of facts and events mostly true to their origins and certainly within the toleration of the people he described. That said, this oeuvre was a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end due to its character driven narrative. I think that in a significant way, this book is a dedication to all the people who made the eradication of smallpox possible. It centers on the quirks and genius of eradication giants such as D.A. Henderson, Larry Brilliant, and Bill Foege. The detailed (and somewhat questionable) accounts of conversations and chance encounters reflects not only the research which went into this book, but also the enormous amount of time Tucker took to interview each and every one of the protagonists which populate “Scourge”.

The central story line is remarkable and is a true exemplar of what is achievable when talented and dedicated people are put together and given the chance to make the world a better place. Tucker’s vivid treatment of the events places the reader in the perspective of someone who is along for the eradication effort; from the highest echelons of the WHO bureaucracy to the most common foot soldier in the war against smallpox, the reader is there with the characters. Dispersed in between the various personality-driven narratives are little tidbits of scientific fact which gives insight into the practical challenges confronting the highly translational science of vaccines. The author does an exceptional job at summarizing the key events which led up to zero pox and he makes a good stylistic choice by quoting Brilliant’s reflection of exactly how profound a moment that was for humanity.

The last third of the book is less of an adventure and more of a discussion on bureaucracy and international politics. Tucker can no longer switch between the contrasting personalities of Henderson and Brilliant and their respective cohorts, but almost entirely focuses on Henderson’s frustrating journey through Washington and Geneva politics. Unfortunately, the pace of the narrative drops off but the quantity of information certainly makes up for it; the author takes us into the classified and shady world of Soviet biological weapons research and leaves us wondering about what exactly is in our next breath of air. At times, Tucker makes it seem as though the places and events described were recorded in person while in actuality they were obviously from secondary sources, most likely interviews with people such as Alibek. All in all, “Scourge” is a well written and well researched book about the people who helped to remove smallpox from this world and also others trying to stop those who contrive to bring it back.


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