Contagion How Commerce Has Spread Disease Mark Harrison

Publication date:
24 Aug 2012
416 pages: 234 x 156 x 37mm
40 black-&-white illustrations

Much as we take comfort in the belief that modern medicine and public health tactics can protect us from horrifying contagious diseases, such faith is dangerously unfounded. So demonstrates Mark Harrison in this pathbreaking investigation of the intimate connections between trade and disease throughout modern history. For centuries commerce has been the single most important factor in spreading diseases to different parts of the world, the author shows, and today the same is true. But in today's global world, commodities and germs are circulating with unprecedented speed. Beginning with the plagues that ravaged Eurasia in the fourteenth century, Harrison charts both the passage of disease and the desperate measures to prevent it. He examines the emergence of public health in the Western world, its subsequent development elsewhere, and a recurring pattern of misappropriation of quarantines, embargoes, and other sanitary measures for political or economic gain-even for use as weapons of war. In concluding chapters the author exposes the weaknesses of today's public health regulations-a set of rules that not only disrupt the global economy but also fail to protect the public from the afflictions of trade-borne disease.

Mark Harrison is professor of the history of medicine and director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford. His previous books include Medicine and Victory: British Military Medicine in the Second World War and The Medical War: British Military Medicine in the First World War, for each of which he was awarded the Templer Medal. He lives in Oxford, UK.

"A thorough, well-researched and thoughtful tome."—David Cohen, New Scientist

"Harrison presents us with a magisterial history which is as much about the present as the past."Alison Bashford, Times Higher Education Supplement

"This is a book of impressive range of originality – the new global history at its best."Michael Worboys, BBC History Magazine

'Mark Harrison brings unrivalled expertise as a medical historian to his masterly account of how contagion and commerce have marched ahead together over the centuries. He shows that the weapons we use against the spread of infection have grown ever more sophisticated without becoming any more effective. Far from protecting mankind in general, they have often been manipulated to give extra advantage to rich over poor nations. This is genuinely global history, powerful and provocative, and a work of remarkable range and originality.'—Paul Slack, author of From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England

'Mankind has for millennia conveyed trade goods over vast distances, and along with them, deadly pathogens. Understanding the resultant epidemics and, critically, the response to them requires a mastery of pathophysiology,  propulsion technology, and political economy, and Contagion seamlessly synthesizes all three. This compact, compelling volume is essential reading for the concerned citizen of an increasingly connected, interdependent, and vulnerable planet.'—William J. Bernstein, author of A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World

'Mark Harrison's fascinating and thoroughly researched study traces the connections between trade and infectious diseases, exploring the diplomatic and political ramifications of quarantine and other measures taken to limit the spread of disease. It shows that such measures could be applied competitively for economic gain, as well as for prevention. A discussion of the impact of globalisation brings the subject entirely up to date. The book provides a complete and satisfying account of a complex series of issues, which have not been tackled so comprehensively before.'—Stephen Porter, author of The Great Plague 

"A book of impressive range and originality, well researched and well written."—Michael Worboys, co-author of Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Rabies in Britain, 1830–2000

“[A] detailed, scholarly examination of the politics of pandemics.”—Kirkus Reviews 

“Compelling.”—Publishers Weekly 

“An important book for a wide audience.”—Choice