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Plagues and Peoples

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  2,368 ratings  ·  95 reviews
Upon its original publication, Plagues and Peoples was an immediate critical and popular success, offering a radically new interpretation of world history as seen through the extraordinary impact--political, demographic, ecological, and psychological--of disease on cultures. From the conquest of Mexico by smallpox as much as by the Spanish, to the bubonic plague in China, ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published October 11th 1977 by Anchor (first published 1976)
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Finally finished this book. It took me a while to read it due to personal stuff and the subject matter, but it ended up being one of my favorites (hence the labor of love category). It being a favorite is leading me to believe I have a soft spot for environmental history. Yes the book was much about epidemiology, but the focus was also very much on how certain diseases were possible within certain environments – how they got there, how they survived there, and how those environments were affecte ...more
Briana Patterson
This book was alright. The author knows his stuff and he's very informative. Most of his conclusions are reasonable, and he provides a fresh look at history that his contemporaries have not accounted for.

However, I hold several reservations concerning his guesswork where information was lacking. McNeill readily admits that he's working with limited sources and most of his conclusions are fine, but there are times when I don't agree with his logic. There's also some outdated concepts within his a
This is what I call an "airplane book" as no one will bother you when you read it because its so alarming. Other great books on this genre (different authors) are "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach (much more readable, this author has a charming sense of humor) and the "The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers" by Scott Carney (a very readable author, very much in tune and sympathetic to the subject at h ...more
An entertaining, if depressing, book on how history has been shaped by disease and pathogens. If you liked Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, this book is all about the germs, and about more than just the modern era: there are interesting comments on the Black Death and the rise of "childhood diseases" and why the tropics are still to be feared in terms of disease (and why climate change is so worrisome, even though that fear postdates the book by a few decades).

Sep 28, 2012 Katarina rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Academics, Historians
Shelves: non-fiction
Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with Plagues and Peoples. I had expected discussion of exactly what cultural ramifications disease epidemics have had throughout history. The movement of disease and the large-scale changes that forced upon populations throughout history was discussed in great detail, but the CULTURAL impact of all this was not the focus. Instead, McNeill took a very empirical, scientific view of history, and chose to look at it as a series of events and interactions between or ...more
Civilized diseases. This is the book that first alerted me to the way some germs and viruses have altered human history, much as pigeons have become a part of our daily environment. As we have developed the previously virgin landscape of the world, we have unwittingly unleashed the microbes intent on destroying us. Tit-for-tat. Throw in the 'peoples' element, such as Roman legionnaires turning on their own communities or Mongols burning villages and their occupants into ashes, and one wonders wh ...more
Lee Drake
This work seemlessly unites archaeology, history, and microbial biology by looking at how infectious diseases have caused our history. The deepest implications are reserved for our future, but the resolution of the past is brought into clarity as well. McNeil points to the sucess of Muhammed and Alexander the Great and argues that they owe more to diseases ravaging the conquered rather than the military prowess of the conquerer. Simple facts such as the density of cities and the rates of infecti ...more
Sandra Strange
If you think we control the world, think again. This book traces the influence of diseases on history. It's compelling reading. It's interesting that this is a part of history rarely studied, except for some mention of the Black Plague, in college classes, though again and again disease interrupts the plans and course of men.
Only a historian would know how to beat a dead horse to this extreme. Unfortunately, the redundancy in the first section was enough to kill the interesting this only if you have trouble sleeping or it's required reading for a school course.
Lauren Brackenbury
This book by William McNeil offers an interesting interpretation of the way that epidemic disease has shaped the course of world history from ancient times to the present day, a topic that the author asserts has been neglected in traditional historical accounts. The book is written in a charmingly old-fashioned style which is pleasant to read, although it is at times a bit tediously wordy and the citations are sparser than I would like.

Nevertheless, here is one passage from the Introduction that
Published in 1977, Plagues and Peoples seems an old, non-popularized Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. However, the scope of McNeill's book is, granted, much smaller than that of Diamond's, who purports to explain the trajectory of the human race. I found Plagues and Peoples in a used-book store, and was excited, upon reading it, to find how well it fit into my knowledge-base and interests. The basic premise is familiar from such authors as Diamond and the vehement pre-Columbian population ...more
In all honesty, I'm rather surprised to see this getting the number of good reviews that it has here! I'm reading it for a Cultural Geography class with the intent to critique it at the end of the semester. If there are additional over-blown words the author can find to make a single sentence more complicated and flowery, he certainly finds it! As for the research and support to his arguments, I'm on page 110 or so and so far he's thrown the FACT that this is based on guesswork far more than any ...more
Well worth the effort to read. Historian William McNeill's 1977 work preceded and probably served as a foundation for Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." While its focus is the effects of disease on human history, it does so in the context of ecological relations and in terms of both microparasitic and macroparasitic threats and effects. My personal reading of the past year has been heavily weighted by history and historical fiction. This book deepens my understanding of how the lives of in ...more
Steve Wiggins
How does one really "like" a book about disease? In any case, this is an interesting study of how disease and humanity have interacted over the centuries. A bit scary, but good. Further comments may be read here: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.
Feb 13, 2012 Dan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2012
This was one of the most compelling books I have ever read. In particular, I admired the sourcing and the boldness of some of the claims; I much prefer scholars putting their necks out on the line with bold, properly caveated arguments, rather than seeing them retreat into timid, easier intellectual spaces. McNeil clearly prefers the former.

At the core of the book, McNeil argues that we should view humans as one species among many in the competition and struggle for survival, facing other macrop
Joe Iacovino
The information provided lays out some concepts that seem intuitive now, which made it all the more interesting when considering what happened in history to achieve this new thinking. The writing style has been noted by some as "flowery" or "verbose" (to them I'd say avoid Hawthorne) but I did not find such criticism warranted. The chapters are lengthy at 50-60 pgs each which isn't the style I prefer and there certainly is a lot of repetition in making his points. However, in the author's defens ...more
Deborah Anderson
This was an interesting book about the interplay between micro- and macro-parasitical entities and the effects on human populations beginning in prehistory and ending with the 20th century. Micro-parasites are considered to be diseases and illness, whether viruses or otherwise, and macro-parasites are governments, or rent-extracting entities etc. The assumptions and conclusions that McNeill came to seemed for the most part reasonable and interesting, though it was at times a dry and in places re ...more
Jeremy Mccool
Although I have some philosophical difficulties with the arguments presented through this book, I believe McNeill's insights into human history--epochs and eras as dominated by plagues and diseases and not by human triumph--are very fascinating. I read this book with vigor, and although some of the imagery is a bit graphic, the narrative does have quite a bit of explanatory power. The base argument is that disease and the business of death have been responsible for the course human history has t ...more
Aniya Coffey
I had to read this book for my AP world history class, and although it felt like torture pulling through this book, for the subject Mr. McNeill was trying to enlighten me about, it was just that. Enlightening. Plagues and Peoples basically explained how different diseases travelled throughout our world and affected many different civilizations. It's pretty scary to think about. But, I suppose I would recommend this book to someone always willing to learn about the history of our world and it's h ...more
An interesting look at the direct and indirect impacts of infectious diseases. The book is old, and I am not qualified to judge if it is up-to-date. If nothing else, however, it forces one to consider the dramatic ways disease has affected our history.

my favorite quote: "Like a disease invading an inexperienced host population, the incidence of civilized forms of macroparasitism have fluctuated sharply through recorded history--sometimes killing off excessive numbers of the peasants and other wo
Read for the first time as a required text in an undergraduate Urban Planning class. Comprehensive & excellently detailed.
Deanna Clatworthy-supple
Not very interesting…very wordy for the amount of info inside and doesn't really discuss the plagues in detail.
Jim McIntosh
Excellent argument that human history is driven as much by disease (microparasites) as by armies (macroparasities). As the author says, "In most places epidemic diseases have become unimportant, and many kinds of infection have become rare where they were formerly common and serious. The net increment to human health and cheerfulness is hard to exaggerate; indeed, it now requires an act of imagination to understand what infectious disease formerly meant to humankind, or even to our own grandfath ...more
Zoe Aleshire
Jun 04, 2008 Zoe Aleshire rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone who likes disease!
Recommended to Zoe by: the dollar rack at half-price
I barely have words for the love I foster in my diseased little heart for this book. Sure, it's mostly just numbers, dates, statistics. There isn't any of that fluffy fictionalization of the history of disease, no "imagine if..." scenarios- but, in its utter simplicity, this book wins. No pontification of other nonsense (not to say I dislike Jared Diamond, haha)...this book is about how plagues affect people. How many die, what happens when a society is affected, the evolution of infection. It's ...more
I read this for a class and got more out of the discussion than the book. McNeill is able to make his whacky premise plausible, but a lot of my classmates were disturbed by how these ideas remove human agency (interestingly, the men were almost all loudly against it while the women were more receptive which I imagine is due to men assuming more agency over the world/active history in general -- but this is just an observation in a tiny sampling of people reading the book, not a thesis!). If you' ...more
Barbara Adde
Jan 05, 2015 Barbara Adde marked it as to-read
Referred by Barry Geldzahler
Sheri Fresonke Harper
Aug 16, 2012 Sheri Fresonke Harper rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Sheri Fresonke by: Dwight Kiel
Shelves: politics, history
Plagues and Peoples discusses the increasing virulence of disease throughout history due to increased likelihood of people coming into contact with each other as society builds in complexity from hunter gatherers toward cities and finally to the interconnected world economy. Diseases discussed include AIDS, schistosomiasis, arboviruses, anthrax, milk bacilli,Asian flu, the Black Death,cholera,blood flukes, canine distemper, childhood diseases, cowpox, dengue fever, dysentary, fungi, smallpox, sc ...more
This was a re-read and I enjoyed the book but I found myself wishing for an updated version, as this was written in the 1970s, and I kept wondering as the author referred to places like China and India, which hadn't had, at that point, the same level of historical analysis of diseases that Europe had had, just what scholarly research into both history and medicine, as well as more recent experiences with pandemics like AIDS, could add to the story of infectious diseases and their impact on human ...more
Sam Norton
Very interesting, reminded me of Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." Probably one of the most poorly laid-out books I've ever read. 300 pages and only 6 chapters? Are you kidding? Furthermore, each chapter was less a systematic account of the history of infectious disease than the author's stream of consciousness-like babblings. Again, the information is very good, and very interesting, but this book took me over a month to finish, primarily due to the horrible layout. Not a reader-friendly book.
I really like this book which travels the path of certain diseases, like chicken pox or the Plague from roman times to our modern period. Its target audience is clearly the general public because I never felt lost in any crazy technical jargon although well written and thoughtful about how at different periods people think and treat sickness with radically different ideas.
Very fun read, but not for just before you sleep because it will probably (almost certainly) give you nightmares.
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History, Medicine...: Plagues and Peoples 2 28 Oct 25, 2012 05:42AM  
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