What is a biography?
Seems like a pretty easy question—one that perhaps we learned early in our school days. A biography is the story of someone’s life—and their times—that someone else wrote (i.e. not an autobiography, which one writes about one’s own life).
With that definition in mind, I was surprised the other day when I stumbled upon a newish series from Oxford University Press called “The Biographies of Disease“. No explanation from Oxford of why biography is the chosen heading given to this series of books profiling conditions that have played major roles in the history of mankind over the centuries. Anthropomorphism? Yes, but if you can get past that, you might agree it’s an interesting way to take what might be perceived as a dry topic, and make it more interesting to your average reader. By giving the disease itself a life and times, the titles bring these medical conditions into focus for readers—and show us how they have impacted both individuals and societies.
Asthma: the biography by Mark Jackson: “Seneca suffered from it, describing it as ‘gasping out your life-breath’. So did Proust. The sudden, painful struggle for breath brought on by an asthma attack has been familiar since antiquity.” (book jacket)
Cholera: the biography by Christoper Hamlin: “Cholera was the scourge of the19th century, sweeping repeatedly across the globe, often killing its victims in a few hours. It still threatens today, wherever the weak….” (book jacket)
Hysteria: the biography by Andrew Scull: “The nineteenth century seems to have been full of hysterical women–or so they were diagnosed. Where are they now? The very disease no longer exists.” (publisher website)