Book Review: “Viruses and Vaccines: Smallpox to COVID-19” by Eric Grannis

I recently had the opportunity to read “Viruses and Vaccines: Smallpox to COVID-19” by Eric Grannis. (Mr. Grannis offered a copy of the book, but I already had a copy of it loaded into my e-reader.) The book begins with a tale of the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721. That epidemic was triggered by a quarantine violation when sailors rowed to shore from the HMS Seahorse, bypassing the public health authorities’ inspection of the ship. That led to an epidemic that killed 800 of the 11,000 people living in Boston at the time. (About 6,000 people came down with the illness.)

Mr. Grannis goes on to explain what smallpox was and how Cotton Mather used the knowledge gained from Onesimus to push for variolation to prevent the effects of acquiring smallpox “the natural way.” Not only did Mr. Mather listen to Onesimus — a slave — but he also consulted physician Zabdiel Boylston and received information from Lady Mary Montagu’s observations from the Ottoman Empire. It was clear that variolation was an acceptable course of action to prevent epidemics of smallpox. Remember, this was almost 80 years before the smallpox vaccine.

The book continues to give us more of the history of smallpox, including accounts of Benjamin Franklin writing about variolation, the British nobility endorsing variolation, and then the first hints that cowpox infection — a harmless infection with a virus that is related to smallpox — protects against smallpox. Then we go into the story we all should know by now: Edward Jenner and his experiment with James Phipps and the eradication of the disease by the 1970s.

Mr. Grannis then gives us a primer on virology and immunology. It’s not too complicated, and it gives the reader enough to understand the how and why of infection and vaccination. The images are clear and understandable, especially for a subject that even graduate students struggle with.

The next big section is on influenza, including the 1918-1919 pandemic that we all are aware of, and one we continuously compare with the COVID-19 pandemic. The 1918 pandemic was not the only influenza pandemic, however. Mr. Grannis does a great job at covering other influenza epidemics/pandemics and why they happened. It’s all about influenza virus genes getting re-assorted, leading to new strains that are not recognized by our immune systems.

After influenza, Mr. Grannis talks polio, a story that we are turning to now in light of the vaccine distribution challenges that echo many of the similar problems we’ve seen in the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. If you’re a History of Vaccines fan, you know how polio has been in the human population awhile now, and that FDR contracted it in his youth, encouraging him to support what became the March of Dimes. Mr. Grannis documents the race to a vaccine that culminated with the Salk — and later the Sabin — vaccine.

The final disease covered is coronavirus infection, with a history of how the virus jumped from animals to humans and how work on the mRNA vaccine has been done. As you know, that story is still being written, but Mr. Grannis does a good job of helping the reader catch-up to where we are now. He then closes the book by tying the past — Edward Jenner — with the present.

All in all, this is a good book if you want to breeze through about 95 pages of information that is delivered clearly and in bite-size chunks. The images and graphics really help the story move along and be understandable. The language can be technical, but it is so only where it has to be. For the rest of the book, the language is not too technical and — again — makes the book understandable. Not only that, but the research is sound. Mr. Grannis received help Princeton Professor Martin H. Wühr to ensure its accuracy.

I would recommend this book for high school students, young adults, and older adults who want to get a primer into the history of three important viruses in the history of humanity. It certainly seems that this would be the kind of book to get a conversation started on how vaccines have been with us for about 200 years, while viruses have been with us since antiquity, or even before.

“Viruses and Vaccines: Smallpox to COVID-19” is available on the Amazon Kindle platform. (Mr. Grannis recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News that is worth a read.)

Top post image by Ben White on Unsplash

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen