Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill

Humanity has been at the mercy of disease forever – plagues have destroyed entire civilizations – but through custom, science, and medicine, we’ve learned so much about disease in recent centuries that its threat has faded somewhat from modern life.  Another way to say this might be that, while disease used to be perhaps the most important historical factor in the success or failure of societies, it no longer is.

The history of disease demonstrates both the accidental nature of history – forces beyond our control that capriciously devastate some and advantage others – and the triumph of human reason that can enable us to gain some control over our fate, in this case so that most of us no longer suffer the death of half our children, among other nightmares. William McNeill’s book, Plagues and Peoples, was the first comprehensive history to capture this balance, and after more than 40 years it remains one of the most insightful narratives on how disease has both shaped and been shaped by civilization.

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