News Release

From National Magazine Award-winning writer Richard Conniff: "Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion"

How scientists saved humanity from the deadliest infectious diseases— and what we can do to prepare ourselves for future epidemics.

Book Announcement

The MIT Press

Cover art to "Ending Epidemics"

image: Cover art to Ending Epidemics. view more 

Credit: The MIT Press. 2023.

How scientists saved humanity from the deadliest infectious diseases—and what we can do to prepare ourselves for future epidemics.

After the unprecedented events of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when deadly diseases were a routine part of life. It is harder still to fathom that the best medical thinking at that time blamed
these diseases on noxious miasmas, bodily humors, and divine dyspepsia. This all began to change on a day in April 1676, when a little-known Dutch merchant described bacteria for the first time. Beginning on that day in Delft and ending on the day in 1978 when the smallpox virus claimed its last known victim, Ending Epidemics explains how we came to understand and prevent many of our worst infectious diseases—and double average life expectancy.

Ending Epidemics tells the story behind “the mortality revolution,” the dramatic transformation not just in our longevity, but in the character of childhood, family life, and human society. Richard Conniff recounts the moments of inspiration and innovation, decades of dogged persistence, and, of course, periods of terrible suffering that stir individuals, institutions, and governments to act in the name of public health. Stars of medical science feature in this drama, but lesser-known figures also play a critical role. And while the history of germ theory is central to this story, Ending Epidemics also describes the
importance of everything from sanitation improvements and the discovery of antibiotics to the development of the microscope and the syringe—technologies we now take for granted.

Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer for Smithsonian magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications, and a past Guggenheim Fellow. Among his many books are The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth; Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals; The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide; and, most recently, House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. Conniff has been a commentator on NPR's Marketplace and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

Some interesting facts taken from the book:
• Infectious disease prevention is the main reason our average lifespan has doubled since the 1800s. This is, as one historian recently put it, “arguably the most important single historical change of the last two hundred years,” and also the least recognized.

• The catch-22 of vaccines and, in truth, of all infectious disease discoveries is that they save us from diseases—and then cause us to forget the diseases from which they have saved us. And when we forget, we become casual about prevention.

• Two women, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, underpaid, working in their spare time, and in the face of skepticism from male counterparts, developed the first successful vaccine against whooping cough, a disease that was then killing 4000 American children on average per year. Their work has largely been forgotten—but it continues to save tens of thousands of lives a year.

• The original description of a bacteria and a virus—the two leading causes of infectious disease—both occurred, at an interval of 200 years, in Delft, a small Dutch city otherwise best known as the home of Johannes Vermeer.

• The campaign against infectious disease isn’t just about developed nations, nor is it just a story in the past tense. In recent decades, global public health programs have boosted uptake of six basic childhood vaccines from less than 5 percent of children in many countries to 86 percent or better in almost all countries, with a corresponding reduction in disease.


“A taut interrogation of the centuries of labor that protected us from pathogens, a bitter lament for how
quickly we abandoned our awareness of risk, and a stirring call for a new generation of disease fighters
to take up the battle. Ending Epidemics drives home the post-COVID lesson of the peril of
complacency.”--Maryn McKenna, author of Big Chicken, Superbug and Beating Back the Devil; Senior Fellow, Center
for the Study of Human Health, Emory University

Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and
elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant
historian with a jeweler's eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.”--Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

“A timely and highly readable account of humanity's struggles and progress in the fight against
infectious disease. Set across three centuries, from the birth of immunology to the antibiotic revolution,
Conniff draws on the personal stories behind these great medical and scientific leaps. A fascinating
read with powerful lessons for tackling today's—and indeed future—epidemics.”--Peter Piot, Former Director and Handa Professor of Global Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; author of No Time to Lose and AIDS: Between Science and Politics

“A dramatic, page-turning account of the grim, never-ending war waged by infections on humankind.
And how we fought back, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.”--Paul A. Offit, Professor of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia; author of You Bet Your Life: From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccinations, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation

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