Author interview'The politics of public health have become absolutely toxic'

Piqued by COVID, storyteller Simon Schama takes a stab at the history of vaccines

In his new book ‘Foreign Bodies,’ the famed historian follows the journey of the emerging microbiologist community of the 18th and 19th centuries toward protecting public health

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image: A medical worker prepares a vial of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Clalit Health Service's center in the Cinema City complex in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
Illustrative image: A medical worker prepares a vial of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Clalit Health Service's center in the Cinema City complex in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Three and a half years ago, as COVID-19 raced its way around the modern world, award-winning historian Simon Schama turned his attention to pandemics of the past.

In his latest book, “Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations,” Schama takes readers on a sweeping journey from the early 18th century through to the late Victorian era — with a couple of short stops in the present.

Centuries before large pharma companies produced vaccines through the latest mRNA technology, desperate physicians and an emerging community of microbiologists tried to understand smallpox, cholera, and plague — and how to inoculate huge vulnerable populations in Europe, India, the Far East and other places around the globe.

Just as today, skepticism was initially rife about vaccinations, especially when inspired by methods some astute 18th-century European travelers observed in faraway places like the Ottoman Empire, or in communities following folk customs.

Then, however, science and scientists ultimately prevailed. The author is less certain about what is happening today.

“The politics of public health today have become absolutely toxic. Ignorance has become a virtue and a political weapon,” Schama bemoaned.

Sign reads ‘The False Passport’ as Israelis protest against the COVID-19 vaccine outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s a particularly dangerous form of the war against knowledge — the war against the sovereignty of knowledge — and it seemed to be part of the populist armory to trust your instinct, your common sense and not listen to ‘so-called’ experts. It’s the Enlightenment’s nightmare, really,” he continued.

Previous Schama histories include two out of three volumes on “The Story of the Jews” — a work in progress —  and a sweeping trilogy, “A History of Britain Vol. 1-3.” The Jewish academic was knighted in 2018.

Simon Schama (Elinor Williams)

Schama told The Times of Israel that the original seed of “Foreign Bodies” was a chapter he wrote on the World Health Organization’s founding in 1948 and the significance of putting aside nationalism for the sake of international cooperation to fight disease. The chapter never made it into the book, but its underlying theme did.

“When we were all locked down because of COVID, I was able to access archival material on the WHO’s historical website. It sent me to something I had not known about, which were the International Sanitary Conferences, which began in 1851,” Schama said.

“When I discovered that [French writer] Marcel Proust’s father [hygienist Adrien Proust] was a critical person in the extension of international organizations apropos public health, I thought, well, this is interesting. And it started from there,” he said.

Students waiting for the lymph to dry after smallpox vaccination at Campsie Public School in New South Wales, Australia, 1913. (State Records NSW via Wikimedia Commons)

The following is an edited conversation with Schama about the interaction between British Imperialism and microbiology, the hero of the book, Russian-French bacteriologist and vaccine pioneer Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930), and the challenges of writing about a subject that was completely new to him.

A major theme of the book is the interaction between Imperialism’s drive for economic growth and the desire to protect public health.

‘Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations’ by Simon Schama. (Ecco)

There is a huge contrast between that early 18th century moment and once the Empire is an institution and it gets going. The British Empire, in particular in Asia — whether it was in Hong Kong or India — got used to telling itself it was the superior civilization that was bringing the blessings of modernity to primitive peasant and coolie society, as it were. So it needed to make the case that we know what’s best for you, and while we are not interested in giving you anything remotely like political rights, we will look after you materially and physically, and you’ll be embraced by the blessings of modernity. Now that looked literally like a sick joke when famine, infectious diseases, and pandemics struck people in this horrific kind of way, particularly the poorest who had not been helped by the presence of the British Empire.

There was this sense that the faster modernization happened, the better it was going to be for everybody. It would lock in the industrial genius of the home culture in Britain, and improve the lives of everybody on the receiving end by making them part of the kind of liberal free trade Imperial world economy. The problem with that is that as you shorten distances and accelerate the speed of communications, pathogens hitch a ride, and we’re still living with this. We’re a fly-through world and respiratory drops are having a happy-go-lucky carnival with us. So we’re still living with that paradox with many people trapped inside the Imperial mindset instead of listening to the science of immunology.

The tragic thing which I may not have flagged up [in the book] quite as sharply as I possibly should have done is that there is a sense that if you get the economy right, everything else, including infectious diseases, is going to fall into place. But of course, in so many respects that is absolutely not the case. That particular dream goes back to the 18th century and has really hit a wall.

Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine is undoubtedly the hero of this book. He developed vaccines for cholera and the plague and was a one-man show traveling through Asia vaccinating people. Why did you find him so compelling?

Waldemar Mordecai Wolffe Haffkine (Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons)

Haffkine was mentioned in the literature about public health and also came up in the many books about public health in British India. So I followed my instinct that there was an incredibly powerful story there. And so it proved.

The critical theme of the book — hence its title — is about outsiders in the life and world of the sciences. I think Haffkine was, not particularly to his happiness, in so many ways a kind of perpetual outsider. He was a sort of unusual figure to be a medical celebrity in Britain so instantly embraced by the great and the good, the medical, scientific, and public health establishment in late Victorian Britain. So I thought that was sort of extraordinary.

Although some lauded him as “the traveling Jew, the hypodermic missionary of modern medicine,” he was not well-liked by the British Indian medical establishment.

He was paradigmatically an outsider, wherever he went. I mean, he wasn’t an outsider in Ukraine [where he was born] but he was certainly an extreme outsider in Paris [at the Pasteur Institute]. In the eyes and ears of the British medical establishment in India, he was a kind of alien figure peddling an incomprehensible new science. I thought this whole issue of making breakthroughs by belonging elsewhere, or in the eyes of the establishment nowhere, was very powerful, and of course, that outsiderdom partly made his downfall even worse.

Waldemar Mordecai Wolffe Haffkine (1860-1930), bacteriologist with the Government of India, inoculating a community against cholera in Calcutta, March 1894. (Wellcome images via Wikimedia Commons)

Without giving away too much about what happened to Haffkine, I’ll just say that he ended up giving up his scientific work and focusing more on religious Jewish life. Do you find that disappointing?

I don’t think he ever became disillusioned with science.  He was disillusioned with what the institutions had done. He just lost his creative energy about science. He felt whatever he did was always going to be short-circuited by people who no longer trusted him.

His hero was Maimonides, who for him represents the absolute reconciliation of rational learning — including scientific and medical learning —with devotion to the Torah. He believed in the necessity of bringing scientific and religious learning together in the same place. He would have wanted yeshivas to teach microbiology. Of that, I am quite sure.

Staff from the Rambagh section of the Karachi Plague Committee, standing outside the police station, India, 1897. Karachi is a port in the province of Sind (now Pakistan). It was placed in quarantine in 1882, during the outbreak of bubonic plague which spread from Bombay. The Plague Committee consisted mostly of volunteers, who were organized into parties and were responsible for the segregation and inoculation of various districts (Photograph probably by Jalbhoy, R./Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons)

“Foreign Bodies” marks a departure for you in terms of subject matter. How did you feel about writing in depth about science?

Fortunately, I was able to access so many archives online, including a tremendous treasure trove on Haffkine at the National Library of Israel. And then I was able to visit it after the pandemic to further delve into the material in person. I also sent sections of the book to editors of prestigious scientific journals I know for review to make sure I got things right.

I noticed that the book is dedicated to your wife, Ginny. Is this related at all to the book’s subject?

My wife is a geneticist. I couldn’t have done it without her. We were constantly talking across the kitchen table, and my research for the book was like doing a hasty course in epidemiology and virology — a sort of “Virology for Dummies.”

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama

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