The subtitle of Andrew Doig’s first book, This Mortal Coil: A History of Death, is slightly misleading. Neither a history of Western attitudes to death – Philippe Ariès’s masterpiece of almost fifty years ago, The Hour of Our Death, is the standard work – nor a cultural history of burial or the disposal of mortal remains (like Robert Pogue Harrison’s The Dominion of the Dead or Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead), it could more accurately be described as a history of the causes of death from the Black Death to the present.
Unlike Ariès, who even called himself a ‘historian of death’, Doig is no historian. He is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Manchester, and his interest in the subject, he says, is a result of ‘three decades of reading, pondering and chatting’. In this book, he demonstrates a detached fascination with changes in the ways humans succumb to what is – whichever way you look at it – invariably a fatal sexually transmitted disease, to borrow from the title of a film by the Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi. For most of human history, there has been little new to say on the topic: average life expectancy was under thirty and plague, famine and war were the horsemen of the apocalypse. And nobody was counting.
The second part of Doig’s book is given over to infectious disease as a cause of death. Some of it – for instance, the passages dealing with the bubonic plague, with its buboes and internal bleeding, and with the explosive diarrhoea and ‘blue death’ of cholera – makes