Aaron's Reviews > History of AIDS: Emergence and Origin of a Modern Pandemic

History of AIDS by Mirko D. Grmek
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Apr 15, 09

bookshelves: social-studies, medicine, sets-the-standard, history, general, physical-science
Recommended for: Everyone, human service professionals, epidemiologists, sociologists
Read in April, 2009

The above Goodreads description of this book is terrible: wrong, misleading, and an injustice to this magnificent book.

Mirko Grmek's book is translated from the original French by Russel C. Maulitz and Jacalyn Duffin (who is one of my favorite writers and author of History of Medicine, which is the best overview of medicine I've found yet). Grmek does an excellent job to separate the "story" of AIDS from the "medicine" by putting the epidemic (pandemic) in context. He explores the early history of the epidemic and traces back story lines and evidence to their origins, as best he can. He explores both the social and medical issues at the time and social and medical repercussions once the disease turned into an epidemic.

Grmek does not seem to have any particular agenda or motivation other than a rigorous and thorough study of the epidemic (as The New York Times Book Review says, "a refreshingly fair account by a first-class mind with no axes to grind"). Grmek approaches the topic from four directions: 1) review of the epidemic from its first cases, trying to capture a play-by-play as it unfolded based on scientific literature, media articles, popular myths and opinions, etc.; 2) a biological overview of the disease and the "real science" behind it (written in thankfully plain English); 3) a thoroughly historical analysis of the disease and its possible origins prior to the current epidemic (especially interesting as it gives the reader a good sense of medical history in general and HIV in particular); 4) and finally, the biological and social conditions of the epidemic, clarifying many of the popular misconceptions and debunking many of the ungrounded popular myths and stories surrounding AIDS.

Throughout the book Grmek explores attitudes of the medical community and the (mostly American) public at the time of the outbreak. There was a generally sense of invulnerability by the public regarding diseases, and the medical community was in general very resistant to taking steps to deal with the epidemic early on, largely due to the spirit of the times. Medical science had just, more or less, eradicate smallpox, contained most epidemics since World War II, and suffered public censure for poorly administrated vaccinations (swine flu). There was a general sentiment that widespread epidemics were a thing of the past. Grmek summarizes, "AIDS, [according to virologist Robin Weiss:] by all rights must preoccupy us because it is a new ailment and because it is spreading. I [Grmek:] might add that AIDS also fascinates us because it concerns sex and blood: an extraordinary outlet for phantasms. AIDS is fatal in its overt form. We had forgotten such plagues existed. The AIDS epidemic caught us unaware and aroused the return of irrational fears because it exposed the impotence of modern medicine just when we had begun to believe that the infectious diseases had been vanquished for good." In this way, AIDS was and is at least as important as social/professional concern as a medical one.

This book truly sets the standard for good medical writing, historical research, social studies, and public awareness. It is well written in mostly plain English. Some medical/technical language is used and data is provided, but never so much as to deter the reader from the issue. Thoroughly researched and well written, this book should be standard for all medical students and history or social science student as a fine example of professional work and writing. The book was published originally in 1989 (English 1990); I would very much like to see an update with the information since.
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