Cover image for Plague : the mysterious past and terrifying future of the world's most dangerous disease
Plague : the mysterious past and terrifying future of the world's most dangerous disease
Orent, Wendy, 1951-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
276 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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RC172 .O746 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Plague is the greatest killer in human history, though it has only emerged occasionally, most famously in Justinian Rome and medieval Europe.Normally, it moves sluggishly from animal reservoirs into human populations, and it shows little capacity for epidemic spread. Yet under the right circumstances, it is the single most dangerous germ on the planet.Orent reveals how Soviet scientists created genetically-altered forms of this terrible affliction, knowing exactly how to convert plague into a deadly weapon.She shows how scientists are still unable to defend against it, and how plague could be visited upon humanity again.

Author Notes

Wendy Orent holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. She is a leading freelance science journalist

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Science journalist Orent's sweeping history of Yersinia pestis begins and ends in Russia. As the Soviet Union, Russia ran the world's largest bioweapons program, concentrated on making plague more virulent and more invincible to antiplague agents. The U.S., which ended bioweapons research during the Nixon administration, doesn't take plague as seriously as Russia but hasn't had Russia's experience with it. Plague's homeland is Mongolia and the adjacent north and west; it spread through Asia to Europe and Africa from there, and there it still flares, killing entire families and tiny communities before the most effective plague prophylaxis, quarantine, contains it. Three times plague waxed pandemic, and Orent charts its course and effects under the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian, whose attempted revival of the Roman empire it quashed; in the mid-fourteenth century, devastating Europe before subsiding in waves extending to the eighteenth century; and in 1894 to 1920, especially in China, during which investigators discovered much of what is definitely known about it. Later the key to plague's dangerousness was ascertained: it disarms immune response. By the time its victim feels sick, the liver, spleen, and lymph glands . . . are tissues of plague, plague bacteria in almost pure culture. Back at last to Russia, where, more than any stockpiled plague weapons, by now probably impotent, the knowledge of former bioweapons scientists is very much on the market. Be afraid, and remember quarantine. --Ray Olson Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

As journalist Orent shows, what is called the plague-a killer of millions throughout the centuries-is several different diseases, some spread by animals, others by humans. Luckily, the Black Death, as the plague was called in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, "never became a permanent human specialist, like smallpox," in part, she surmises, because it was too virulent to survive for long. But when Orent moves on to the present and future of the plague, she's treading on uncertain ground. With the help of a former Soviet bioweapons scientist, Igor Domaradskij, whose memoirs she's edited, she throws the spotlight on the Soviet development of strains of the plague. The frightening thing, she notes, is that some of these strains can no longer be accounted for. Whether or not that is something that should be feared is unclear: American experts she quotes argue that these viruses are no longer major threats to create an epidemic. But she contends that while not as deadly as anthrax, the strains of the plague created in the former Soviet Union-or other strains of the disease that might be antibiotic resistant-are indeed something to worry about. Not so long ago, a book like this might have seemed like fear mongering. In the post-September 11 world, a plague outbreak may still be unlikely, but many readers will find this a subject deserving further investigation. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
I Return to Obolenskp. 7
II The Mystery of Plaguep. 31
III The Winepress of Godp. 61
IV Black Deathp. 97
V The Renaissance Plaguep. 141
VI The Third Pandemicp. 173
VII The Enduring Threatp. 209
Notesp. 235
Acknowledgmentsp. 265
Indexp. 269