It’s so enticing to embrace a theory that invites you to throw out everything you were forced to learn about history in school and to replace it with something new. And hence we are invited to rethink human history in Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues. No more “Great Men” as drivers of change; no, not when we have Great Germs.

First, though, if you pick up Jonathan Kennedy’s Pathogenesis, just out in mid-April, you’ll see that the background image on the book jacket is The Triumph of Death, the 1562 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, albeit covered with a rash of germy dots.


The book jacket only shows a section of that painting’s ghastliness, choosing to put in the jacket’s lower left the artist’s image of a dog eating the face of a baby held by a collapsed mother. If you take a look at the whole painting in the photo below, you can see there are a couple of less depressing images in the painting: in the lower right, we can find a jester sneaking under a table and a couple in love oblivious to everything going on. Given the cover image of the book, we readers know we are in for something dark, or maybe just some dark humor. Turns out, we get both.

The author loves to start every topic with a story, often a personal anecdote, so I’ll offer a small memory of mine that came to me as I read Kennedy’s work. When I was eight years old, my father was a professor at a liberal arts college. He took me along to campus one day and in the student union I spotted a photo of his face on the wall, lined up with half a dozen others. Beneath each one was a sealed jar with a slot where one could deposit money. A sign explained that the money was a way of voting for “The Ugliest Man on Campus.” My father was winning easily – and not just Dad, but the man whom everyone said I looked just like. A passing professor smiled at my distress and explained that this was a fundraiser and a kind of jokey popularity contest and thus a backhanded compliment. I could only hope that was true.

That memory came to me because I suspect that Dr. Kennedy, who teaches at the Queen Mary University of London, would likely be a winner in a school popularity contest. He has an eye for the fascinating detail and the intriguing aside, which is a skill no doubt honed in the classroom. For instance, when reviewing human evolution and mentioning the famous ancient skeleton known as “Lucy,” he adds the detail that the archeologists came across the bones while listening to the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” And when discussing the early hunter-gatherers, he notes that this was a healthy lifestyle — it was a sparse population, and one without domesticated animals (except dogs) to invite pathogens to jump species, leaving infectious diseases at a disadvantage. He writes, “A study based on observations of foraging communities over the last fifty years or so estimated the average lifespans of hunter-gatherers to be around seventy-two years. Remarkably, this figure is one year less than the global life expectancy today according to World Bank data.” In case you’re thinking we should revert to that lifestyle, he also cites a study that concluded that the planet could only support a max of 10 million or so hunter-gatherers, compared to the 8 billion folks alive today.

Kennedy soon argues at length that it was farming, what he calls “sedentary agriculture,” that allowed epidemics to do their dirty work and transform society, one of his eight plagues. He sees germs everywhere in history.

Some instances of diseases altering history are familiar, like how European settlers brought viruses to the Americas that decimated local populations. For instance, Kennedy writes this of the conquistadors: “So if guns and steel don’t explain why the conquistadors managed to conquer South and Central America so decisively, what does? The answer is simple: germs, germs, germs.”

Then there’s North America, where he concludes that the Pilgrims succeeded in settling in New England because they arrived in an area cleared by an epidemic “probably brought by European fishermen or traders,” one that had just wiped out 90% of the native population. Thus, Kennedy can write, always looking to be provocative, “If modern-day Americans want to be historically accurate, then their gratitude at Thanksgiving should be directed to the Old World pathogens that made the settlement of Plymouth Colony possible.” Pass the gravy.

You can also guess that our British author also delighted in revisiting the Revolutionary War, merrily passing along thoughts from an American historian, John McNeill, saying that while he “is careful not to completely ignore the role of Great Men like George Washington, he drolly suggests that the female Anopheles quadrimaculatus mosquitoes should be considered one of the ‘founding mothers of the United States.’ As he points out, malaria killed eight times more British troops than American guns.”

One of Kennedy’s less persuasive arguments is that the rise of Christianity hinged on a plague that helped undermine the Roman Empire, writing, “The pandemic turned a tiny and obscure Jewish sect on the periphery of the empire into a major world religion.” Borrowing on the work of sociologist Rodney Stark, Kennedy writes, “The Christian faith skyrocketed because it provided a more appealing and assuring guide to life and death than paganism during the devastating pandemics that struck the Roman Empire.” More than just a “guide to life,” the early Christians cared for the sick, putting them in contrast to the pagans, whose response to those affected was, in the words of one Bishop, “cast them half dead into the road.” The result of the basic Christian care was a dramatic drop in mortality, and this became part of what the author calls “recruitment material.” True enough, but then again, one doesn’t need a plague to find sickness and death, along with opportunities for compassion.

Kennedy also wants to label poverty as one of his plagues, another argument that fails to take hold, but offers him the chance to turn his gifts for comment on recent history. The upshot is that Kennedy has zipped us through human history, plague by plague, right up to Covid. He writes, “When we place coronavirus in its historical and scientific context, it becomes very clear that there is little about it that is new or remarkable.”

Really? Here we’ve just traveled through history, reading about plagues that wiped out a third or half or even 90% of populations, and we can’t stop to marvel at the science that gave us the Covid vaccine? Sure, seven million people have died, but that’s out of eight billion… a death toll percentage that starts with a decimal point and a zero, not a three, five or nine. Maybe we can’t readily point to a Great Man or Great Woman in that story, but there was a Great Team making vaccines and many more Greats implementing them, including some reading this.


The author is persuasive that plagues altered history, mostly by clearing away some populations in favor of others. And, despite the book jacket with its horror-scape and the book’s recurring talk of death tolls, it ends on an upbeat note, calling for new efforts to equal the best in human history, like the progress in sanitation and housing, and cites the experience of Covid as one reason to “encourage people to challenge the status quo.”

All in all, Pathogenesis is a fascinating read from a charmer of an author. And he does it all in under 250 pages (not counting Notes, etcetera). So, yes, well worth reading.


Census Bureau Art?

By Bill Davenhall, Geomedicine Analyst


Let’s begin this month with “data art” and try to guess what the “artist” was trying to say to us!

Ok, I admit it’s a bit abstract, but let’s bring in the “color analyst” like they do in sporting events. Let color and shape stimulate our imagination of what we are seeing with our eyes. Here we can see different colored paths with many hills and valleys.

QUESTION: What is being painted here?

QUICK ANSWER: Trends of childhood poverty rates in all 51 States, 3,142 Counties, and 13, 157 School districts. (Each line represents a state’s path for a school age child since 1997.)

Relevant Facts:

  • Source of Data: US Census Bureau’s  Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE)
  • Data is used to officially calculate Title 1 program benefits for Elementary and Secondary Schools across the US in 2023-2024.
  • The only up-to-date, single year income and poverty statistics for all counties and school districts in US.
  • County Family Median Annual Household Income in 2021 was $56,634 and individual counties ranging from $25,653 to $153,716
  • The Median Poverty Rate for Children 5-17 was 17.8% with individual counties ranging from 2.4% to 61.6%.

I would suggest you visit this new interactive data and visualization site here soon. Try it out – it’s a free resource for you and supported by the US Census Bureau’s newest group – the US Census Bureau Academy.

I think we often fail to see the bigger picture when we only stare at the detail!   

As always, I appreciate 2nd opinions,