Books to Note: Winter 2008/9

Paul A. Offit. Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2007. xv + 254 pp. $26.95.

He doesn’t come out and say it, but Paul Offit hints that scientist Maurice Hilleman should have won a Nobel Prize. The developer of vaccines against measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, pneumococcus, meningococcis and Haemophilus influenza type B, Hilleman has saved untold numbers—”more lives than all other scientists combined,” according to Offit. Based on the author’s interviews with Hilleman in the last months of his life, Vaccinated is, no doubt, a valentine. But there is more to this book than its title and first 30 pages suggest. Using Hilleman’s career first at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and then at Merck as the running thread, Offit offers minihistories of scientific efforts to thwart some of the most ravaging diseases to affect humanity. Offit’s clear writing and concise style give readers uncomplicated explanations of some of history’s scientific problems and solutions. In his most interesting chapter, Offit examines recent road blocks to vaccination efforts, including the autism scare, religious objections, government’s lackluster support, and industry disinterest. Offit acknowledges Hilleman’s churlish reputation and his position at the center of several controversies, but this is clearly of labor of love for an “unrecognized genius.” --Eleanor Goldberg

 

David Rogers. Nobel Laureate Contributions to 20th Century Chemistry. New York: Springer, 2006. x + 656 pp. $189.

Who is the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in chemistry? At what age did Alfred Nobel attend his only year of school? How many times was Angelo Angeli nominated for a Nobel Prize (he never won)? The answers to all these and more are in this book. Much of the information can be found elsewhere, especially on the Nobel Prize website, but Nobel Laureate Contributions to 20th Century Chemistry offers a concise digest of information on some of the greatest chemical innovators of the last 100 years. Of special interest are a list of chemists who were nominated, sometimes repeatedly, but never awarded; charts surveying the ages of prize winners; and graphic webs showing networks of laureates and their influence on each other. This will be a useful reference work for those who study the history of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. For those with a passing interest, nobelprize.org is just as, if not more, informative. --Eleanor Goldberg

Carroll Pursell. Technology in Postwar America: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. xvi + 280 pp. $36.50.

Technology doesn’t drive history; people do. If we now find ourselves mired in any number of crises that appear to have been created by technological change, we must remember that we have only ourselves to blame. Such is the clear, if somewhat grim, message to emerge from Carroll Pursell’s masterful synthesis of the history of technology in postwar America. Using examples ranging from the growth of agribusiness to the construction of suburbia, Pursell shows how the technological choices made by political and economic elites committed the United States—and indeed, most of the world—to a system that encouraged consumption and reinforced existing power dynamics. In sections on the short-lived congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the 1970s-era appropriate technology movement, Pursell reflects on some attempts to counter what he calls attitudes of “unquestioned technological optimism.” The book concludes with a discussion of the place of American technology in an ever more interconnected world. --Audra Wolfe