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Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama - vast, terrifying and somehow beautiful

Do yourself a favour: buy this book

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations
Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations
Author: Simon Schama
ISBN-13: 978-1471169892
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Guideline Price: £30

Do yourself a favour: if you see this title in your local bookshop, pick it up and read what you can of the twenty-odd page prologue.

If you do, you’ll likely end up doing your local bookshop a favour and purchasing the book. Because I cannot recall an opening salvo quite like what Simon Schama serves up in Foreign Bodies, his cultural history of pandemics and vaccines. It is, to say the least, more exciting than it sounds.

Schama pulls delightfully diverse strands – from McDonald’s beef and pangolin scales to ancient viruses unlocked in Tibetan melting glaciers – and ties them into a neat bow that spells out his central theory: “All history is natural history… circumscribed by what we have done to nature, and what it has done to us.” Fiction has “Call me Ishmael” and ”Lo-lee-tas” and so on as mercurial foretastes of alternative worlds, but masterful nonfiction such as this provides awesome reorientation to this world. An ever pressing task, for as Schama rather understates it, in this world “things are amiss”. It’s vast and terrifying and somehow beautiful, and it reads like a Ted Talk all-timer, but instead of a blank screen you’re left with this beautiful bow to untie and book to read.

The good news is, the book delivers. The scope starts wide but sharpens its focus quickly, with Schama cleverly restricting his analysis to three major epidemics and roughly a hundred year span. A throughline comes by following the innovators – from smallpox insufflators (“the blowing of dried, powdered pus up the noses of children”, for the uninitiated) to cholera and plague inoculators – a colourful cast who populate this story and provide its narrative thrust. Heading this vaccine vanguard is Waldemar Haffkine, described elsewhere as a “saviour of humanity” and fully deserving of the mini-biography which Schama sneaks in.


Surprisingly, given it was clearly written under the exigencies of lockdown, reading this book did not trigger Covid fatigue. In contrast, it felt oddly edifying to have our pandemic placed proportionately in historical context. We may no longer be living in a global health emergency, but Schama delivers a timely reminder that “this history is not going away any time soon”. There is much to learn from this urgent and endlessly erudite book.