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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

The life stories of disease

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 28 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4391

Is it possible to write a biography of a disease? Wendy Moore samples an ambitious new medical series

It’s typical. You wait several millennia for a biography of a common disease and then four come along at once.

And yet, like the line of proverbial buses, there is a certain inevitability about the Biographies of Diseases series, which the Oxford University Press has just launched with its first four volumes—on hysteria, cholera, diabetes, and asthma—with up to 20 more books in the pipeline. After all, we have been regaled in recent years with the biography of a city (London), a continent (Africa), and even a fish (cod), so the idea of biographies of illness was plainly an irresistible marketing attraction.

But does the format work? Pedants may argue that a biography of cholera, for example, is simply the repackaging of a well worn history of the disease with a fashionable new title. Yet the notion of an ailment having a birth, a lifespan, and—ideally—a demise, set in the context of changing social and medical attitudes, and viewed through the lens of its often human-like impulse for survival, shifting moods, and idiosyncratic traits (albeit usually …

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