Saturday, November 10, 2012

Illustrious Dead

Illustrious dead is a nice history of the Napoleanic Invasion of Russia with an emphasis on the role that disease (especially typhus) played. It also has plenty of background on how typhus works and is caught.

From the intro, I thought it would focus on the disease. Instead, it presents a chronology of Napolean's Russian campaign, spending time to emphasize how typhus was a prime factor in Napolean's defeat. The Russian leaders were portrayed as largely incompetent generals who mostly got lucky. Napolean's army was one of largest assembled. This lead to some logistical problems. However, more critical was the dying off that occurred, mostly due to typhus. Typhus spreads via lice. War provides the ideal situation for them to spread, as it keeps people in close quarters under harsh conditions. Typhus and cellular mitochondria arose from a common ancestor, and have both been around for millions of years. Typhus has been very resilient through years adapting just enough to survive without causing too much damage. Today, it can be treateted with antibiotics or a vaccine. However, it still is prone to third world epidemics.

The book strikes a nice balance between war and medical history. Without the disease Napolean may have taken over all of Europe. Without Malaria, he may have taken over all of America. How would the world be different today if it were not for the diseases?

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