Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations by Simon Schama - review by Ben Gummer

Ben Gummer

A Prick in Time

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations


Simon & Schuster 480pp £30

I was left wondering after a moment of peak Simon Schama – where we are led from his ‘idle’ purchase in Paris of a slim old book on Marcel Proust’s father, Adrien, to his own bookshelves by the Hudson River – whether great historians must have something close to a Proustian affinity for a particular period of history, one they understand not simply as a result of study but which they inhabit emotionally, with a quality not far separated from a kind of memory. The reason why the dim fog of mid-medieval western Europe was cleared by Richard Southern is because he understood that world at an elemental level and could translate that understanding to the reader. The same is true when it comes to Steven Runciman writing on Crusade-torn Byzantium, Eamon Duffy on England on the eve of the Reformation and David Brading on early colonial Latin America.

For Schama, it is the Enlightenment beau monde. When he introduces the japes and exploits of Charles-Marie de La Condamine – ‘ex-soldier, scientific virtuoso, mathematician, intercontinental voyager and traveller and in every respect one of the more swaggeringly outsize figures of eighteenth-century culture’ – it is hard to escape the sense that Schama is talking with him, not just about him, or at least recalling a conversation they enjoyed late last night, half-cut. La Condamine, a friend of Voltaire, became an outspoken champion of smallpox inoculation in 18th-century France. Schama the Encyclopédiste takes us round the salons frequented by La Condamine with an intellectual swagger of his own, and with some justice: he is far better suited to an age that prized the parry and thrust of adorned debate to one in which grey sermonising passes for public argument.

Foreign Bodies is an epic history of inoculation and vaccines, one that begins at the end, in 2020–21, when nature seemed to erupt as human activity came to a near-halt. From there we travel through France, imperial Russia, Messina, Sidon, Bombay and the Raj, Ottoman and British Egypt, Constantinople,

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter