I first heard of Mark Pendergrast’s 2010 book Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service thanks to the good people at Book TV. (Oddly enough, while Pendergrast’s lecture bored me to tears nevertheless I still wanted to read his book.) Then, not long after that I came across Tolmsted’s excellent review on her blog Book Sexy. Duly intrigued, I made a mental note to someday read Inside the Outbreaks should I ever stumble across it during one of my library visits.
Of course, one Saturday afternoon while prowling the shelves what did I find but Pendergrast’s book. Not only was I drawn to the book because of its subject matter (for years I’ve enjoyed reading about diseases and epidemics, ever since a former client of mine recommended Berton Roueche’s 11 Blue Men) but I also found it hard to resist its slightly exaggerated comic book-style cover art. So, even with a sizable stack of library books under my arm I added it to my pile and headed to the automated check-out machine.
I found Inside the Outbreaks to be pretty good, but nothing fancy. It chronicles the 60 year history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, which could be described as the field branch of the CDC. The book is a series of vignettes starting with the creation of the Service and its first official mission (the investigation of a strange new disease that was sickening soldiers during the Korean War) and ending with the anthrax scares following 9/11. The storytelling isn’t stellar, but thankfully it is direct and to the point. Neither is it boring. While certainly not flashy, Inside the Outbreaks feels well researched.
While I enjoyed reading about the EIS’s adventures in combating diseases like polio, smallpox, Ebola, cholera and Legionnaires’ disease, I could not help but feel a bit nostalgic upon reading Pendergrast’s account of a few outbreaks that occurred in my own back yard. Growing up in Oregon, I remember when sewage contaminated drinking water at Crater Lake National Park, the Rajneeshees poisoned salad bars and E-coli sickened fast food diners in Southern Oregon.
Down the road I’d like to read other books like this one. Berton Roueche’s 1981 classic The Medical Detectives should be at the top of my list along with McCormick and Fisher-Hoch’s Level 4: Virus Hunters of the CDC and Nagami’s Maneater: And Other True Stories of a Life in Infectious Disease.