Books to Note: Summer 2013

Book shelf.

New books from the wide world of chemistry.

Tom Koch. Disease Maps: Epidemics on the Ground. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 344 pp. $45.

In Disease Maps, Tom Koch approaches the history of disease through the lens of geography. Beginning with 16th-century anatomy illustrations and symptom mapping, Koch argues that cartography on various scales has shaped our understanding of disease. Cholera, a 19th-century scourge, is Koch’s primary example of cartography as a medical and public-health tool. He uses much of the rest of the book to carry his arguments through to other contexts, including modern-day mapping of diseases like cancer, AIDS, and West Nile virus.

As Koch widens the scale of his maps and moves toward the present, he demonstrates how pre–germ theory maps of contagion defined epidemic diseases like yellow fever and cholera and determined their treatment—quarantine. Disease maps transformed individual sets of symptoms into disease entities: public-health events that affect communities and nations. Such mapping, Koch contends, depends on bureaucratic and governmental advances as well as scientific and technological ones, such as census numbers and infrastructure maps.

This accessible book is beautifully published and includes an exceptional 106 color illustrations that demonstrate the power of the maps Koch discusses.—Carin Berkowitz


Harvey Levenstein. Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 232 pp. $25 cloth, $15 paper.

In Fear of Food, Harvey Levenstein tackles the “omnivore’s dilemma” from a fresh angle. While our ancestors once pondered which plants and meats were safe to eat, First World consumers today worry about behind-the-scenes industrial processing that occurs between harvest and supermarket. Levenstein reassures readers that many modern concerns are simply the latest entries in a long list of health fads. He begins with the later part of the 19th century and the establishment of germ theory, ground zero for the idea of food as vehicle for bacterial and other diseases. Since then, common substances like milk, yogurt, and beef have vacillated between being nutritious and being dangerous, according to public-health professionals of the day. Levenstein also tracks the rise of vitamania and lipophobia, both with lasting (and conflicting) impacts on how we interpret preventive health and nutrition.

Levenstein’s comprehensive social history engages readers’ critical thinking regarding their diet choices. With an eyebrow raised at health experts, he warns, “For every Ph.D. there seems to be an equal and opposite Ph.D.” (p. 161). With so much conflicting information about food it’s refreshing to hear Levenstein’s calm voice call for moderation.—Jennifer Dionisio


John Tresch. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 472 pp. $40.

In The Romantic Machine, John Tresch examines science and technology in Paris during the Romantic period, which lasted from the fall of Napoleon until 1850. Why Paris in the 19th century? The city was the center of French science and “the awakening of the romantic consciousness was exactly contemporaneous with a dawning awareness of the political importance of industrialization and the role science would play in it” (p. 7).

Major scientists, such as Alexander von Humboldt, André-Marie Ampère, and François Arago, helped build a worldview that welcomed both precision in science and a Romanticism that found inspiration in a nonstatic, interconnected nature. Technology—scientific instruments, steam engines, and photography—played a crucial role in the work of those whom Tresch calls the mechanical romantics, men like Arago, an astronomer and politician who helped introduce the daguerreotype to the world. Most of the book focuses on the past, but toward the end Tresch does look to recapture aspects of this lost worldview. He wants us to drop unhelpful binary oppositions, such as that between a technological world and a natural one, a separation the mechanical romantics would have rejected in favor of a world defined by connections.—Michal Meyer


Joseph Dumit. Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 280 pp. $84.95 cloth, $23.95 paper.

The last century witnessed an incredible transformation in the importance of pharmaceutical medications to everyday life. In his accessible book Joseph Dumit demonstrates how this boom in prescription medicines has itself served to transform our very understanding of health. Combining medical history and anthropology, Dumit investigates clinical trials, marketing, and the rise of the so-called expert patient to explore how modern Americans have come to view their health through a lens of insecurity, paranoia, and fear. The author argues that we have shifted from understanding health as a natural state periodically interrupted by illness to envisioning ill health as the normal state of affairs that requires a steady supply of medications (ranging from cholesterol-battling statins to antidepressants) to keep sickness at bay. Dumit examines the role played by the pharmaceutical industry and the rise of evidence-based medicine, which have redefined the borders between sickness and health along statistical lines. Drugs for Life is recommended for anyone who has ever been told they’re at risk for illness.—Mat Savelli