Epidemic Man

Plagues and Peoples

by William H. McNeill
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 369 pp., $10.00

Most professional historians resemble small peasants, intensively cultivating tiny tracts of the past; their labor is arduous and indispensable, but if they pause to raise their heads their vision is usually bounded by their neighbor’s fence. Some, bolder spirits, are like air travelers; as they peer down from thirty thousand feet, larger outlines of the past become visible; whole countries and centuries can be discerned, though sometimes the detail is rather blurred. Only a tiny few, powered by their own exceptional energy or the assistance of research foundations, project themselves above the earth altogether; for them the whole globe swims into focus and millennia of human history take shape before their eyes.

One of these rare historical astronauts is William H. McNeill, professor of history at Chicago. As the author of The Rise of the West, he is best known for his panoramic views of world history, though occasionally his spacecraft drops down nearer the earth’s surface so that he may give closer examination to a thousand years of Venetian history (Venice: The Hinge of Europe), or, skimming dangerously near the ground, a mere three hundred years of Europe’s Steppe Frontier. He has traveled a long way since his beginnings as a mere cultivator in 1947 with a PhD thesis on The Influence of the Potato in Irish History.

In Plagues and Peoples Professor McNeill returns to orbit; and, once again, has from his elevated vantage point been able to discern patterns which have hitherto eluded workers on the ground. He is not the first to study the history of disease; on the contrary, his work is wholly dependent on the labors of generations of medical historians and epidemiologists. But by reflective reading and imaginative analysis he has been able to give fresh shape and meaning to the subject. Founded on secondary sources though it is, Plagues and Peoples is a learned, cogent, and wholly absorbing book. It can be truly said that, to most of those who read it, the history of the world will never seem quite the same again.

Professor McNeill’s subject is the impact of infectious disease upon the course of human affairs. In part, this involves pointing out the historical effect of particular epidemics, like, for example, that of 430-429 BC, when a quarter of the Athenian land army was wiped out, so that Athens became incapable of defeating Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. But the book’s underlying aim is much more ambitious than this, for what McNeill seeks to do is to establish the major patterns in the history of infection itself. To this end he adopts an uncompromisingly biological standpoint, from which human history becomes a mere dimension of natural history. To understand the diseases which have affected humanity it is necessary to recall that man is himself a predator and that his impact upon other forms of life closely resembles that of an acute epidemic disease. The hunters of Paleolithic times, in a catastrophic overkill, managed to …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.