Book Review: “Germs at Bay: Politics, Public Health, and American Quarantine” by Charles Vidich

I recently received a review copy of Germs at Bay by Charles Vidich. You may remember that quarantines have a special place in my heart because they don’t always work. As an epidemiologist and public health practitioner, it is very frustrating to see the same ideas applied to public health problems over and over again with the same results. In the case of quarantines, someone almost always violates quarantine and puts many people in danger. Once you understand the historical, sociological, political and epidemiological basis for quarantines, the frustration is less, yet the disappointment remains.

In Germs at Bay, Mr. Vidich walks the reader through the history of quarantines from the first time they were applied to more recent events like the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and even COVID-19. If you’re a fan of the History of Vaccines timeline, you’ll like the first appendix where key moments in quarantine history are presented in a timeline fashion. There is even a “Quarantine Decision Tree” in Appendix D that, frankly, I wish every public health decision-maker would know by heart. If you’re not an expert in public health or epidemiology, the glossary explains key terms in plain English.

And perhaps that is the best part of this book, the easy-to-read language in which Mr. Vidich presents the history and theory of quarantines. The voice in which the book is written reminds me of the best professors I’ve had in college, graduate school and the doctoral program. It’s not condescending or dripping with sarcasm; it is clear and reads more like a conversation with an expert than a lecture or academic paper.

Germs at Bay is a great book if you are interested in the how and why of quarantines like those at Boston Harbor or New York’s Ellis Island, or the current recommendations to keep COVID for further spread. (How is that last one going, by the way?) It would be a great accompaniment to a course on disease transmission dynamics or disease surveillance. But it is also a good read for history wonks who want to read, for example, about the influence of the First International Sanitary Conference in Paris in 1851 on quarantine 1860s Boston.

Featured 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