Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues by Jonathan Kennedy @TransworldBooks #nonfiction #science #history #NetGalley #bookreview

I am delighted to share my review of Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues by Jonathan Kennedy. I read it back in January this year and it was such an interesting one to read. Charting the history of humans and how plagues also followed.

My huge thanks to Transworld Books for accepting my request to read this title via NetGalley.

Publication Date – 18th April 2023

According to the accepted narrative of progress, humans have thrived thanks to their brains and brawn, collectively bending the arc of history. But in this revelatory book, Professor Jonathan Kennedy argues that the myth of human exceptionalism overstates the role that we play in social and political change. Instead, it is the humble microbe that wins wars and topples empires.

Drawing on the latest research in fields ranging from genetics and anthropology to archaeology and economics, Pathogenesis takes us through sixty thousand years of history, exploring eight major outbreaks of infectious disease that have made the modern world. Bacteria and viruses were protagonists in the demise of the Neanderthals, the growth of Islam, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the devastation wrought by European colonialism, and the evolution of the United States from an imperial backwater to a global superpower. Even Christianity rose to prominence in the wake of a series of deadly pandemics that swept through the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries: Caring for the sick turned what was a tiny sect into one of the world’s major religions.

By placing disease at the center of his wide-ranging history of humankind, Kennedy challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions about our collective past—and urges us to view this moment as another disease-driven inflection point that will change the course of history. Provocative and brimming with insight, Pathogenesis transforms our understanding of the human story.


Pathogenesis = the source of disease

This was a brilliant book to read and it was one that took me through the history of the world from the emergence of humans through to the present day.

Starting at the beginning the author tells how humans were hunter-gatherers, they would move and travel. It was when they settled that disease began to make itself known. As people lived close and began to cultivate the land, and breed animals this closeness was something that encouraged any pathogens, diseases, viruses or plagues to multiply. As people from different areas and regions began to mix then so diseases would travel. One group may be immune to a certain strain having built upon their immunity over time. Coming into another group may not have had the immunity and so things were able to spread.

Using the history of the world and how humans moved and travelled is a great way to understand how diseases or plagues were able to travel. History has shown how some indigenous populations were wiped out due to European travellers bringing in diseases. Where the Europeans had built up an immunity over time, indigenous peoples were coming into contact with it for the very first time. The results were deadly.

As humans have gradually spread, become more industrialised and shaped the earth then so plagues and diseases have also changed. Being in closer contact with animals has allowed some pathogens to change and they have made the jump from infecting animals to humans. Many people think of the Black Death when the word plague is mentioned. The bacteria Yersinia Pestis is responsible for the plague, it has been around long before the 1348 or 1665 outbreaks. The bacteria has been found in the DNA of ancient humans from the neolithic age.

AS people have moved and adapted then so have the bacteria responsible for plagues. As we are freer to travel then so are the bacteria. The recent pandemic has shown our generation how quickly a plague can move and we are constantly being told of new strains of Covid. We also live in a world where certain antibiotics are not as effective for treating bacterial or viral infections.

Using history as a way of showing how people lived, worked, moved and developed their knowledge and understanding of the world is a great way of showing the history of plagues as well. One evolves alongside the other and this is a book that is easy to read and understand.

The author has done a brilliant job and I really found this book amazing to read. I learnt so many things and also understood certain things a lot more. Laid out well and referencing things that I knew of was a great way of laying out history and plagues.

THis is a fabulous book and if you enjoy reading history, about plagues, deaths, living conditions and the general history of the world and its people then I do think this is a book you would really enjoy. I did and I would definitely recommend it.


Jonathan Kennedy teaches politics and global health at Queen Mary University of London. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Cambridge.

Many thanks for reading my post, a like or share would be amazing 🙂 xx

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