Wendy Orent on the Plague

13548013 Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease

Wendy Orent, New York: Free Press, 2004, reprinted 2013

I’ve been way for far too long. One of the reasons for the quiet is because I’ve been reading quite a few books this summer. This book was one of them. I wouldn’t normally review a nine-year old book, but it was just reprinted unrevised this year so I think it’s fair for review. Published in 2004 it can’t be expected to have hardly any of the recent genetic work.

Wendy Orent has a PhD in anthropology but has always worked as a freelance writer. Her journalistic history shows. The sensationalist title put me off reading this book for a long time. Unfortunately, it continued in the book. The material is attention-getting enough without adjectives like “chilling”. She also overused interviews as sources. Some of the interviews are interesting and provide opinions not found in print. In my opinion, interviews should not be used for material that has been published.

One of her primary sources is a Russian biologist named Igor Domaradskij whose Cold War career ran the gamut of roles in the Russian plague system from anti-plague epidemiologist to biological weapons designer. Orent previously was co-author of his autobiography and considers him a friend. Her theories and even terminology are heavily influenced by Domaradskij to the degree that it seems to compromise her objectivity. Sources like Domaradskij are difficult, divulging their version of events that their government will never acknowledge even occurred. We have to keep in mind that one reason men like Domaradskij write books is to get recognition for their secret work and get vengeance on a system they feel wronged by. Cold war Russian research was also warped by the influence of Lysenkoism and by its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world of science making reconciliation of scientific theories and philosophies difficult. Even those like Domaradskij who say they always renounced Lysenkoism were still trained and worked in an environment that warped the scientific method.  We are forced to use their information because we can’t afford not to but we have to approach it with caution and skepticism.

Her reconstruction of the first two plague pandemics is a mixed bag. She supported Yersinia pestis as the agent of both pandemics and asserts that the human flea was the primary vector.  It’s interesting to see how she argues for the human flea as vector but she never really presents evidence to support this method. She also posits that there were fundamental differences between the first and second pandemics that I do not believe the sources support. We don’t have enough sources from the first pandemic to judge. She does not seem to recognize that although early plague records are primarily coastal, plague is mentioned in all areas of Europe that we have written records. It is likely that the perceived area restrictions are due more to our records than the actual spread of the plague. She makes some predictions about the evolution of Yersinia pestis, especially the Black Death clone(s), that have not panned out in modern genetic studies. Depending on Russian evolutionary theories rooted in Cold War philosophies is just not sound.  She argues for a major role for pneumonic plague early during the Black Death that transitions into a vector borne disease. These are just a few areas where she argues for explanations without enough scientific or historic evidence to back them up.

There is some thought-provoking material in this book primary on plague in the 20th century but there is a lot of chaff to sift to find the wheat. It may be useful to people who are well read on the plague literature, historic and scientific, but I can’t recommend it to those who have not done a lot of previous study on the plague.

4 thoughts on “Wendy Orent on the Plague

  1. Thanks for posting this review! Now I have a good idea of what I’d be diving into in reading this book. I was struck by this observation:

    “It’s interesting to see how she argues for the human flea as vector but she never really presents evidence to support this method.”

    I had always thought that the rat flea (X. cheopis) was the supposed vector for a long time. Has this been contested anytime recently? I’m certainly not an expert; the last book I read on plaguey fleas was pretty dated, so I didn’t know if you had any other thoughts🙂

    1. Actually I do think its possible that the human flea played a significant role but we just don’t have the evidence yet. It is also possible that the human louse transmitted it. What we do know now is that typical rat flea transmission like we see today is not enough to account for the historical accounts. So there are still mysteries to be solved when it comes to transmission.

      1. “What we do know now is that typical rat flea transmission like we see today is not enough to account for the historical accounts.”

        Thanks for the quick response! On related notes, I did see that a squirrel in California tested positive for y. pestis, which was interesting. So why is it that it’s now certain typical rat flea transmission wouldn’t have accounted for historical accounts of the black death? Sorry for all of the questions– I just find this fascinating and I’m glad to see someone posting on it who actually has knowledge on the subject!

        1. Nothing is “certain” about medieval transmission. The death rates are just too high and close together to be the flea transmission we see today. Sometimes they come at times of the year when flea levels would be low. While there were medieval European rats, they were not distributed in a way that would make sense for the death rates.

          There are just missing pieces in the puzzle. Its also a reminder that there is a great deal that we don’t understand well enough about the medieval environment. We are still learning about the landscape epidemiology of current plague foci, so medieval mysteries should not be surprising.

          None of this means changes the fact that Yersinia pestis is the organism. We have DNA from multiple places and dates placing Y. pestis in skeletons from medieval Europe.

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