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  • Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease by Mark Harrison
  • Anne Hardy
Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease. By Mark Harrison (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2012) 376 pp. $38.00

The potential for pandemic disaster in an overpopulated, overglobalized, and overexploitive human world has provided inspiration for popular science writers since the early 1990s. Such works typically combine microbiology with storytelling and may also, as in Wolfe’s The Viral Storm, draw on such relevant disciplines as anthropology, entomology, zoology, and history to enrich their doomsday scenarios.1 In these accounts, the interdisciplinary components are clearly visible.

Contagion takes a different approach. Praised by William J. Bernstein on the jacket for its seamless synthesis of “pathophysiology, propulsion technology and political economy,” Contagion offers a methodology that is less evidently pluralistic and more that of a historian using accepted historical approaches—principally political and economic—to answer the questions that he raises: How has long-distance trade spread epidemic disease (in humans, animals, and plants) in the past, and what measures have been taken to prevent such spread? In Harrison’s accounts of most diseases, however, the pathophysiology is lightly in evidence, and “propulsion technology” might better be understood as an economic historian’s normal alertness to the effects of changing methods of transport. Unlike the popular science writers, Harrison has no interest in the genesis of new diseases or of virulent disease strains, and so no need to make use of anthropology, biology, or even epidemiology in constructing his analysis. His aim is less to shock popular awareness of danger than to provide a historically rich analysis that will act as a wake up call to politicians and planners.

Harrison’s story begins with the Black Death in the 1340s and continues through to SARS and avian influenza in the twenty-first century. Between the Plague of Justinian (541–762 a.d.) and the Black Death, he reminds us, the world was notably free from pandemic infections. Not until the thirteenth century did populations and trade networks recover sufficiently from Dark Age depression to provide transport and fodder for opportunistic pathogens. Quarantine—the historical approach to wildfire infections—is a central player around which Harrison traces the shifting political and economic repercussions of policy.

Plague dominates the earlier centuries; successive cholera epidemics in the later nineteenth century, and the resurgence of pandemic yellow fever and plague, mark the points at which both disease and commerce became “truly global” (xv). Indeed, the first remotely coherent international response to plague was devised in response to the third plague pandemic of the 1890s, which caused significant commercial disruption and political disagreement. Surveillance and containment were the essence of this response. Harrison meticulously charts the political and economic pressures that enmeshed such disease episodes. Self-interest, [End Page 249] whether of individuals, industries, or countries, lies at the heart of these negotiations.

The crux of the political message comes in Harrison’s brief conclusion. History, he observes, indicates a range of preventive measures: “Unless we get the balance right, it is unlikely that we will enjoy either the security we crave or the commercial freedom essential to our prosperity” (281). The science of epidemic prediction is uncertain, and recent responses to plague, SARS, and swine flu suggest that human-containment strategies can work. But, as Harrison makes clear, science indicates in this instance that the price of security is eternal vigilance. Political balance is essential for effective action, and Harrison is emphatic that no particular political interest should be allowed to dominate collective responses to emerging pandemics.

Anne Hardy
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine


1. Nathan Wolfe, The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age (New York, 2011).



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pp. 249-250
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