QI scientist authors new book on the last days of Smallpox
22nd May 2018
Mark Pallen, a Research Leader at the Quadram Institute, has published a gripping account of the last outbreak of smallpox, which occurred forty years ago in the unlikely setting of suburban England.
In his new book The Last Days of Smallpox: Tragedy in Birmingham, Pallen provides the first full account of what happened when, in August 1978, the smallpox virus crept like a thief in the night from a laboratory in Birmingham to re-inhabit human flesh and blood, nearly a year after smallpox had been eradicated from the globe.
Pallen explains: “What happened that fateful summer has all the hallmarks of a Greek drama or Shakespearean tragedy, with the shocking but mysterious appearance of a dreaded disease in the heart of England. A frantic effort followed to save the city, and the world, from disaster. Caught up in the events were a tragic heroine— a photographer, who suffered a hideous fate—and a tragic hero, a virology professor, driven to mortifying despair who was then treated as a scapegoat during an official enquiry. However, as I show in the book, he was later exonerated in a court of law”
In the book, Pallen covers not just the Birmingham smallpox outbreak, but also the ensuing court case, drawing on records of the time and reminiscences of those who lived through it. Aiming to make this account of the events broadly accessible, he has woven the scientific, social, political and historical context of the episode and its aftermath into an absorbing multi-layered narrative.
According to Stanford professor Stanley Falkow, the book provides “a riveting account of the mystery, the politics and the legal implications of the Birmingham event”, while Robin May at the University of Birmingham describes it as “Thoroughly engrossing—a high-quality detective story, with a nice human touch”.