Ritualistic murder in 1920s America: Cahokia Jazz, by Francis Spufford, reviewed

Writers dealing with that knottiest of problems in fiction – to what extent can they describe cultures and societies not their own without appropriation, an insulting level of ignorance and/or launching a social media storm – are going about it in different ways. The latest novel by Sebastian Faulks is set in the future (where, pleasingly, everyone still needs a coat, phew). Val McDermid has gone the other way and returned to smoky, bottom-pinching years, starting with 1979. Francis Spufford’s solution to writing about race – and race in America at that – is to propose an alternate reality, invent an intensely detailed city to do it in, and extrapolate

How inoculation against smallpox became all the rage in Russia

The concept of vaccination evolved from 18th-century inoculation practices and many people contributed to the accretion of knowledge. This book focuses on two individuals: the Quaker doctor Thomas Dimsdale, who, from his small Hertfordshire surgery, pioneered a simple smallpox immunisation; and Catherine the Great, who summoned him all the way to St Petersburg to inoculate her and the teenage Grand Duke Paul. Despite success all round, though, it turns out that anti-vaxxers are nothing new. After revealing the destructive force of smallpox – in one period of the 18th century, 400,000 perished annually in Europe – Lucy Ward, a journalist and former lobby correspondent, recapitulates the history of inoculation against

The jab that saved countless lives 300 years ago

This timely book celebrates one of the most remarkable women of the 18th century. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was so impressed by the Turkish technique of ‘engraftment’ to prevent smallpox that in 1721, exactly 300 years ago, she arranged for the first such inoculation in England — and, even more controversially, had it carried out on her own three-year-old daughter. Smallpox pus from a sufferer was carried in a walnut shell and applied to a cut made in her daughter’s arm. She discovered the technique too late to use it on herself. As a young woman and court beauty, she had contracted smallpox during one of the frequent epidemics that

Why we should consider testing Covid on prisoners

The Covid problem lies as much in the delayed action of the virus as in the virus itself. Since symptoms emerge only days after infection, testing often comes too late to reveal how transmission occurs, and often too late to prevent onward transmission, since many people may be most contagious before symptoms appear. This delay makes the targeting of restrictions far more complex — like weather-forecasting in reverse. (For this reason, what we may have to fear most from bioterrorism is not pathogens that are most deadly but those with delayed action.) If Covid had immediate effects (your hair instantly turned purple) we might have cracked the problem by now.