Jennifer Wright balances aspects of medicine, science, and social history in her 2017 book, Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. Perhaps I connected most strongly to the human and social elements because of experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020. Even when medical theories are contested and not based on modern science, leaders and regular folks still choose how to handle a contagious plague. And they often choose the worst possible options.

Wright organizes her book chronologically, taking us through time as she highlights various contagious conditions. For example, early in the book, she explains the Dancing Plague, then progresses through examples like the Black Plague, cholera, tuberculosis, and polio.

In each case, Wright also discusses how the plague spread and what measures were taken to stop it. Those measures varied from the grim to the laughable. If there’s a solution, Wright details the people and process involved. As time progresses, scientists create vaccines, and naturally, not everyone trusts them. It’s not uncommon for the author to insert a comment about vaccine hesitancy, which certainly struck me hard in 2022.

My conclusions

Even though I bought this book in 2019, reading it during the height of a pandemic seemed impossible. But now is a perfect time. With everything from the last two years fresh in my mind, Wright’s work meant even more. I was particularly struck by the number of times she said, “Hopefully we won’t have this attitude,” when in fact that’s exactly how people behave in this pandemic.

Despite scientific and medical advances, humans will probably always face contagion. By revisiting history, we learn from our mistakes. However, our reactions to contagion containment measures remain frustratingly similar through the course of hundreds or thousands of years.

Still, Wright takes complex science and breaks it down into readable chunks. I learned plenty about pandemics and disease management. I recommend this if you’re a medical and science reader. But don’t rush into it if you’re still grappling with the consequences of COVID. Everything may be too raw and uncomfortable to absorb.

Pair with Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen, which also chronicles medical history.