The World of Public Health Through Books

By: Rebecca Kann – Environmental Epidemiology

When I was applying to grad school, the idea of going to a public health program still seemed foreign to me. Like most people applying to Rollins, public health was not my primary background and I was a little intimidated transitioning into a mostly new field. One of the things that helped me start to get acquainted with the world of public health was to read books with public health themes. Each book I read got me more and more excited to be in the field and gave me a taste of what I should expect when I got started in grad school. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are 5 book recommendations to get you excited about public health:

1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This book is necessary reading for anyone going into public health. It tells the story of the real person behind the infamous HeLa cells, the impact those cells have had on the medical community, and her family’s battle for justice. And, yes, it was made into an HBO movie with Oprah Winfrey. Here is a quote from the author’s website about the story: “Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.”

2. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
I could not put this book down when I read it. The story follows Paul Farmer’s mission to cure infectious disease around the world and is fascinating reading for anyone interested in global health. Here is a brief description from the author’s website: “In medical school, Paul Farmer found his life’s calling: to cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. Kidder’s magnificent account takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes minds and practices through his dedication to the philosophy that “the only real nation is humanity.” At the heart of this book is the example of a life based on hope and on an understanding of the truth of the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains there are mountains”—as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one too.”

3. Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
For anyone interested in environmental epidemiology, this book is a must-read. It highlights a decades-long battle for a town affected by toxic pollution from a local chemical company. After reading this over the summer, I regularly saw the themes from the story come up in my first-year classes. Here is an overview of the book from the author’s website: “A quiet seaside town in New Jersey, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades- long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river.”

4. Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service by Maryn McKenna
Full disclosure: I have not had a chance to read this one yet, but it is high on my list. This book follows officers in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), which is housed at the CDC, right next door to Rollins. This book will, without a doubt, get you excited to be in the field of public health but also to go to a school that has so many connections with the CDC. Here is a quote from the author’s website about the book: “They always keep a bag packed. They seldom have more than twenty-four hours; notice before they are dispatched. The phone calls that tell them to head to the airport, sometimes in the middle of the night, may give them no more information than the country they are traveling to and the epidemic they will tackle when they get there. The universal human instinct is to run from an outbreak of disease. These doctors run toward it. They are the disease detective corps of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency that tracks and tries to prevent disease outbreaks and bioterrorist attacks around the world. They are formally called the Epidemic Intelligence Service — a group founded more than fifty years ago out of fear that the Korean War might bring the use of biological weapons — and, like intelligence operatives in the traditional sense, they perform their work largely in anonymity. They are not household names, but over the years they were first to confront the outbreaks that became known as hantavirus, Ebola virus, and AIDS. Now they hunt down the deadly threats that dominate our headlines: West Nile virus, anthrax, and SARS”

5. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
I was especially drawn in by this book because of its connection to my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It follows the battle for social justice of eight families struggling to find housing in a market set up for profit above anything else. Here is a short overview from the book’s website: “In Evicted, Princeton sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they each struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Hailed as “wrenching and revelatory” (The Nation), “vivid and unsettling” (New York Review of Books), Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of twenty-first-century America’s most devastating problems. It’s unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.”