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Book Review: Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service by Mark Pendergrast

Review by Rachel Zelkowitz

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11:18am, June 18, 2010
Magazine issue: Vol. 178 #1, July 3, 2010
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In 1951, a group of American men suited up to go to war. This wasn’t unusual at the time — the Korean War was on — but this brigade was armed with field notebooks and test tubes, and was trained to take aim at threats to public health. Inside the Outbreaks tells the story of this little-known corps, the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Taking a historical approach to the subject, Pendergrast, a science journalist, uses interviews and archival materials to bring to life the people of the EIS, such as the service’s founder, epidemiologist Alexander Langmuir, described by his daughter as someone who “people knew when he entered the room.”

After training, “Langmuir’s boys,” as the initial officers were called, traveled the world in search of natural and social causes of cholera epidemics, smallpox outbreaks, food contamination and other ills. The book chronicles these early forays and then recounts the history of the EIS, as it opened its ranks to women, veterinarians, and social scientists and expanded its purview to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and cancer.

Pendergrast’s pace is nearly as frenetic as that of the EIS: Activities in Brazil, Africa and California unfold within a few pages. The effect is jarring at times but does reflect the intensity of those serving at the front lines of public health. 

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, 432 p., $28.

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