Book Review: The Atlas of Disease, by Sandra Hempel

A fascinating cartographic insight into the worlds most deadly diseases and epidemics.

Another fine piece of writing by Sandra Hempel, providing clear and lucid descriptions of many of the terrible diseases that haunt mankind.

Sandra Hempel has written two previous books on the history of medicine and science – her chosen journalistic field. Her first, The Medical Detective, won the British Medical Association prize for the understanding of science and the second, The Inheritor’s Powder, was serialised as a BBC Book of the Week. The Atlas of Disease is another fine piece of writing, providing clear and lucid descriptions of many of the terrible diseases that haunt mankind.

Hempel has separated the topic into four sections – airborne, waterborne, insect/animal and human-to-human, based on the most common forms of transmission. The details for each disease are clearly written, followed by the history of how it was tracked down and defeated or not. The approach is a good one providing details of symptoms, transmission and available treatments. The book also highlights the work of those who played a significant role in diagnosing and/or treating the disease.

Perhaps the most famous use of mapping techniques in combatting disease was the Grand Experiment by Dr John Snow following the 1848‑49 cholera epidemic in London. By the next outbreak in 1854, just one of the three water companies had moved its pumping works to a rural area up river and Snow demonstrated the mortality rate of the users of contaminated city water was 8 to 9 times that of the safer rural supply. This research was crucial in mitigating the 1854 Broad Street outbreak, which had a death toll of 500 within ten days, when the doctor mapped the streets and houses which used the contaminated Broad Street pump.

Typhus, dysentery, plague, and cholera are all dreadful words that carry images and meaning far beyond most westerners’ understanding as they expose a very primal fear. We, in the first world, may hear of them happening in faraway lands but the book amply illustrates it was not all that long ago they were a clear and present danger to everyone almost everywhere.

As the author points out, epidemiology is a relatively recent science and a necessary one to combat disease when, only after investigation and plotting its spread, can plans for treatment and management be put in place. It is a clear indication of the explosion of knowledge in all forms in the last 100 years. As with Dr Snow’s ground-breaking work, the book demonstrates the role of mapping techniques in revealing hidden patterns of infection. Providing a world map, showing likely points of origin of an illness and its spread which was closely related to the trade routes of the time, reminds us how vulnerable we still are when trade and travel abounds across the world.

Clearly, The Atlas of Disease is designed to be a popular science book rather than an academic text. Nonetheless, the biggest disappointment in a book on medical matters and disease is the lack of references, particularly statistics with no references, which I found annoying. Even when direct quotes from primary sources are used, still no references are provided. A list of credits for illustrations and photographs is provided, as are the sources for the main maps which illustrate the area and/or spread of the disease, but all these are very poorly set out and difficult to read.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Murdoch Books
Released: December 2018
RRP: $39.99 hardcover

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