Cities and countries engulfed by panic and death, desperate for vaccines but fearful of what inoculation may bring. This is what the world has just gone through with COVID-19. But as Simon Schama shows in his epic history of vulnerable humanity caught between the terror of contagion and the ingenuity of science, it has happened before.
Characteristically, with Schama the message is delivered through gripping, page-turning stories set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: smallpox strikes London; cholera hits Paris; plague comes to India. Threading through the scenes of terror, suffering and hope – in hospitals and prisons, palaces and slums – are an unforgettable cast of characters: a philosopher-playwright burning up with smallpox in a country chateau; a vaccinating doctor paying house calls in Halifax; a woman doctor in south India driving her inoculator-carriage through the stricken streets as dead monkeys drop from the trees. But we are also in the labs when great, life-saving breakthroughs happen, in Paris, Hong Kong and Mumbai.
At the heart of it all, an unsung hero: Waldemar Haffkine. A gun-toting Jewish student in Odesa turned microbiologist at the Pasteur Institute, hailed in England as 'the saviour of mankind' for vaccinating millions against cholera and bubonic plague in British India while being cold-shouldered by the medical establishment of the Raj. Creator of the world's first mass production line of vaccines in Mumbai, he is tragically brought down in an act of shocking injustice.
Foreign Bodies crosses borders between east and west, Asia and Europe, the worlds of rich and poor, politics and science. Its thrilling story carries with it the credo of its author on the interconnectedness of humanity and nature; of the powerful and the people. Ultimately, Schama says, as we face the challenges of our times together, 'there are no foreigners, only familiars'.
Sir Simon Schama's award-winning books, which have been translated into twenty-three languages, include The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory, Rembrandt's Eyes, A History of Britain, The Power of Art, Rough Crossings, The American Future, The Face of Britain and The Story of the Jews. His art columns for the New Yorker won the National Magazine Award for criticism and his journalism has appeared regularly in the Guardian and the Financial Times, where he is Contributing Editor. He has written and presented more than fifty films for the BBC on subjects as diverse as Tolstoy and American politics, and he co-presented the landmark series on the history of world art, Civilisations. Most recently, his History of Now series aired on BBC2 in November-December 2022. Schama lives in New York and is the University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations is his twentieth book.
"This splendid and often moving work of history [...] Schama has a gift for combining novelistically colourful detail, serious analysis and wryly amusing asides"
– Daily Telegraph
"Extraordinary [...] A meticulous retelling of a terrible yet scientifically innovative aeriod [...] Makes an urgent case for building a better future on our toxic past"
"This is history of the best sort – humanly engaged but never sentimental"
– Mail on Sunday