What's more fantastic and exciting than a huge book about a terrible disease with lots of painstaking historical and scientific research crammed in? Nothing. That's why I have gone on a rampage through popular nonfiction FOR you so you can read this handy guide!
The oldest epidemic on the list, the Black Plague, swept through Europe and killed perhaps HALF of Europe's population at the time. Luckily a lot of records survive and John Kelly has created the mostly-not-boring The Great Mortality for modern consumption.* Learn about the plague's harrowing journey over the Mongolian Steppe and into the history books!
Have you ever looked at a water treatment plant and been all "what's that? Why is that so vital to our urbanized society?" So have I! That's why I picked up The Ghost Map, which traces the last significant cholera outbreak in the developed world and gives us an essential primer on how human waste has been disposed of and dealt with in London for the last couple hundred years. You'll even learn about the first "water closets" (that's what early toilets were called) the variety of waste management professions that preceded modern indoor plumbing, and - hold on to your hats - the stench of Victorian London.
Then head across the pond for the late 19th century yellow fever here in America! An American Plague stars a brilliant army doctor, the city of Memphis, and mosquitoes. Before the yellow fever epidemic in 1878 Memphis was poised to become a major Southern city. (For more on a fallen metropolis, see Erik Larsen's fabulous Isaac's Storm, which describes pre-hurricane Galveston as a booming urban center.)
Well holy f*$%&% shit,** what comes next? A for-real worldwide pandemic, chronicled by my favorite disease book of all time, The Great Influenza. John Barry not only writes a great history of the flu pandemic in 1918 - he introduces us to major figures in modern medicine and public health. Doctors and officials of the early 20th century were ill prepared for the pandemic that killed healthy young adults (including, notably, the soldiers being shipped throughout the US and off to Europe during WWI) and quite possibly saved us from further gigantic flu pandemics. Swine flu, you have nothing on vaccines and IV hydration!
David Oshinsky won the Pulitizer Prize for Polio: An American Story, a book that surprises those of us who were born in a world without polio and makes me really, really scared of hand sanitizer. What will you learn? I'm so glad you asked! You will learn about the origins of the March of Dimes and all of the supposed miracle cures pursued by FDR. You'll also follow Salk and Sabin as they enter a nerdy but historically crucial contest to create a working vaccine.
The high-profile disease of the late 20th century is, unfortunately, well-known to all of us now. While books like The Band Played On and Allan Gurganus's novel Plays Well with Others captured the early years of America's AIDS crisis, I sought out The Origins of AIDS to better understand how the disease came to the US and caused those high-profile outbreaks. It's a book full of academic language and charts and graphs...so not my favorite on this list, but informative nonetheless. Particularly fascinating is the role of Haiti as a nexus for the spread of HIV.
Lastly, I'm just starting Spillover by David Quamman and savoring its Ebola section to better educate myself on the disease The Hot Zone made famous. Someone in this community recommended it to me and I don't remember who - but thank you! There's plenty of more updated info on Ebola right now, and I trust the author of Spillover in his assessment that Preston's book is alarmist. Hot Zone was a fun read...but it's light, and light on realistic information about what's going on in West Africa now.
Note: While cancer does not fit into this category (epidemic/pandemic diseases), nor is it one single disease, an additional excellent medical book is Siddartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies. In it you'll learn about the scarcity of cancer in early human populations (that we know of) due to the lower lifespan back then, the first types of cancer that spurred major research initiatives, and the biological roots of the many kinds of cancers.
*Spoiler alert: lots of diseases come from poo