Simon Schama on pandemics

Simon Schama recently came to Bath to speak about his new book at Topping & Co. Emma Clegg took the opportunity to catch up with him and find out why the historian – who has written a host of award-winning books, including Citizens and A History of Britain – settled on pandemics, vaccines and the health of nations as his latest subject.

We know about pandemics; we have lived through Covid-19. But Covid was just the most recent chapter in a long history of outbreaks of infectious disease including plague, cholera, flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Historian Simon Schama with his specialisms of art history, Dutch history, Jewish history and French history might not be the obvious contender for writing a book about pandemics. Yet a historian with a brilliant, enquiring mind and an unerring ability to snare his readers’ attention with the drama of his themes can take on any tranche of history that captures his imagination, as Schama proves with his latest book Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations.

Covid interrupted Schama’s book Turn of the Tribes, which he was then writing, about the culture of populated nationalism. As he says, “When the pandemic happened I thought that this was one moment when national borders cease to have much relevance as viruses and bacteria cross them. We needed states to collaborate with each other in the production of vaccines …although ‘dream on’ was the answer to that.”

With our lives engulfed by the pandemic we all came across the World Health Organisation (WHO), as did Schama, but he went further and investigated its founding in 1948 and then went to their history archive to read about the Sanitation Conferences from the 1850s, which encouraged collaboration between states to deal with cholera in infected populations. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is the first transnational organisation to do something other than to make war or peace’,” he says.

One of those featuring in the first part of the new book is French epidemiologist and hygienist Adrien Proust (1834–1903) – the father of novelist Marcel – who played a crucial part in the understanding of epidemics. In the 19th century, he was one of the major proponents of social distancing and quarantine – which he called ‘sequestration’ – for cholera, the plague and yellow fever, all infectious diseases causing widespread deaths at the time. “Proust was one who saw how epidemics could be so easily spread,” says Schama. “and questioned what sense there was for nations to deal with contagion just within their own territory.”

“This was the last generation who didn’t know about germ theory. They had never seen a virus; even though there were reviews about it, they hadn’t been seen under the microscope. Nobody had really thought, especially in Britain, the world’s greatest trading nation, that disease could be spread by travel. And you could simply pick up cholera by getting into a carriage – either a railway carriage or a horse-drawn carriage – and putting your hands on the upholstery, not knowing that cholera is a vibreo with a particular type of microbe. Proust understood that there was this brutal paradox between our increasing embrace of modernity, and our developing knowledge about microbiology, which made us more likely to be fatally vulnerable to these pathogens.”
Not only did Proust systematically contain those affected and recommend frequent face and hand washing, he focused on the importance of hygiene in transport, and the interruption of communications by land or sea to stop the diseases spreading. We understand this now, but then it was anathema to government and the populace. “It was through the movement of humans, Proust wrote unambiguously, that pandemics spread their fatal net…This all now seems self-evident, but in the 1870s and 1880s it was anything but,” says Schama.

Nobody had really thought, especially in Britain, the world’s greatest trading nation, that disease could be spread by travel.

In his research Schama also came across Waldemar Haffkine (1860–1930), a Russian-French bacteriologist known for his pioneering work in vaccines, but whose name had become hidden within history, surprisingly unrecognised in the modern world. He worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and is recognised as the first microbiologist who developed and used vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague, in the case of cholera a vaccine that he introduced in India for mass inoculation. Notably he first tested the vaccines on himself. He is just one of several Jewish scientists mentioned in Schama’s book who worked with disease and whose religion often held back the acceptance of their ideas, due to the prejudice of those responding to them.

“When a writer like me gets a sniff of a really interesting story with a very unlikely character in the middle of it, that’s what sets me off,” says Schama. You’ll certainly feel a sense of injustice as you read his words about Haffkine’s pioneering work and his unfair and unfounded suspension by the authorities from the laboratory he had established at Byculla, Mumbai, in 1896 – later named the Haffkine Institute – which is told grippingly within the book.

“The heart of the matter of this subject, one that I grasped quite early on, was really the paradox we all live in, with humans being extremely ingenious, resourceful and scientific and at the same time a bundle of primitive impulses, paranoia and anger… so it all came out of that.”

On the one hand you have the scientists and bacteriologists on the frontline of evolving medical discoveries; on the other you have the politicians, business leaders and decision-makers with quite different reference points who can be unaccepting and obstructive to new scientific findings. In the UK during the pandemic politicians and medical experts seemed to work relatively harmoniously together; in the US not so well with the renowned infectious-disease expert and public health leader Anthony Fauci demonised for much of his commentary, and Schama brings Fauci into the debate at the end of his book. Go back 125 or so years to a time when epidemics and viruses were not properly understood by most of the medical community and there is a raft of opportunity for confusion and conflict. We know that vaccines introduce infected foreign matter into a healthy body, and that this triggers an immune response. But in the late 19th century this was a hard truth to promote.

“Haffkine was an unknown young bacteriologist and he became an extraordinary practical kind of evangelist. He became famous by always inoculating himself first in public in a demonstration that used a live vaccine and not a sterilised vaccine – so you can see why people would have needed a lot of persuasion,” says Schama.

“It was quite clear that people in this period treating public health policy in countries like India didn’t understood how vaccines worked and they were very reluctant to take on board germ theory when it became published in the 1880s. They literally didn’t have time or didn’t want to understand it. Everything was taken care of by the massive army and the extensive disinfection policies with carbolic acid and limewash. Haffkine of course would make all that unnecessary. But he had to persuade people that putting a little bit of the poison that would otherwise kill someone would actually save them, not kill them.”

I wouldn’t describe Schama as quietly observational about the stories he recounts. He is invested in the characters he describes, in what they achieved, and in the way that developing science has not always been understood, recognised or heeded by those in power. And in how pandemics indicate that the natural world is out of kilter, its balance disturbed and its life threatened by sustained and negative human interactions: “[History] has been circumscribed by what we have done to nature and what it has done to us,” says Schama in the prologue.

While his book is about the history of disease and inoculation there are also many strands of contemporary observation about Covid and the modern world. “Much of the hostility to our Covid-19 vaccine and to Fauci and others was because the new methodology uses a molecule called Messenger RNA (mRNA). […which is not part of an actual bacteria or virus]. Somehow this themes to our very conspiracy-minded social media madness between sinister, inexplicable things – where people don’t really want to learn the science, even though it is at a level that is perfectly understandable by laypeople. Suddenly you develop all these mad paranoias where you have 5G chips inserted into your arms or a plot by Bill Gates or George Soros.”

“There has been a lot of talk in newspapers such as The New York Times about the need to institutionalise what we have understood from the experience of Covid. My book is about episodes in the past and I wanted to let readers feel the resonance that it has for us now. That’s why the opening chapters [including references to Covid-19 and the disruption of the natural world] are what they are.
“When you get to be a really old person, as I am, you either go off and play golf and treat history as a happy stroll down memory lane, or you become a bit urgent about writing the kind of histories that might move the needle a tiny bit towards something better. And I’m not interested in golf.”

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama, Simon & Schuster, £30