- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

By Stephan Talty
Crown, $27, 336 pages

The pale horse of death rides with the red horse of war in the terrifying vision in the Book of Revelation for a very good reason. Since time immemorial, lethal disease has been the handmaiden of war, and it usually killed far more people than military battles ever did.

In this riveting book, experienced writer Stephan Talty documents how the lowly, miserable, lethal typhus microbe destroyed Napoleon Bonaparte’s plan to conquer Russia in 1812.

Mr. Talty documents that the British and Russian armies did not bring down Napoleon or destroy his legendary Grandee Armee. Nor did the famous Russian winter. Napoleon’s empire over all Europe from Madrid to Moscow was dissolved by Rickettsia prowazekii, the microbe of typhus primarily carried on lice. It directly killed at least 100,000 French and allied soldiers and possibly three or four times as many of them indirectly.

In all, 90 percent of the Grande Armee of 600,000 men — the greatest army Europe had seen since Xerxes crossed the Hellespont to invade Greece 2,200 years before — was annihilated by the combined effects of a failed campaign and a disease carried by the lowly and despised louse.

The central role of typhus in deciding the War of 1812 and the fate of Napoleon was not previously unknown to history or ignored by historians. It was well recognized at the time and by mainstream historians ever since. In his classic and widely read historical novel “The Commodore,” written in the early 1940s during World War II, British writer C.S. Forester even had his famous British naval officer hero Captain Horatio Hornblower fall victim to the typhus but survive it.

However, Mr. Talty’s focused, taut account will come as a revelation to the American general public and even to many students of military history as well. In a time when the American people and their government are congratulating themselves, possibly all too prematurely, on having dodged the bullet of a serious health threat from the swine flu outbreak in Mexico, this book is filled with sobering lessons all too relevant for our time as well.

First, public hygiene is literally a matter of life and death. Therefore, all necessary resources need to be poured into it to assure the rapid identification of health threats, especially from pandemic diseases.

Second, the most immediate response to pandemics has to be the imposition of the most stringent quarantine regulations to contain the outbreak. In the swine flu scare, the U.S. government dithered from a combination of bureaucratic, economic and constitutional concerns while other governments such as those of China and the European Union acted far more quickly and decisively. Mr. Talty makes clear that epidemic disease can kill more people than a nuclear attack, and almost as fast. Dithering on imposing quarantine should never be an option.

Third, Mr. Talty reveals the ability of existing microbes and diseases to rapidly mutate or metastasize in proliferation when provided with ideal breeding opportunities such as the collapse of organized society or hygiene due to war or other crises. This factor can humble and baffle the most advanced scientific and medical establishments in the world.

Napoleon’s doctors regarded those of all other European nations with contempt. But as Mr. Talty vividly describes, they were helpless to treat typhus, alleviate the hideous suffering of its victims or — most crucially of all — deduce what its pattern of transmission was.

Ironically, it was another French doctor, nearly a century later, who finally uncovered the lethal secret of how typhus was transmitted. In a postscript, Mr. Talty fittingly describes the achievement of the unjustly forgotten Charles Nicolle. In Tunisia in May 1909, Nicolle performed a classic series of experiments that decisively identified the common louse as the key carrier of the Rickettsia microbe. He deservedly won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Medicine for his achievement. Nicole’s discovery revealed the truth: Quarantine and rigid regimens of disinfectant and hygiene were the great defense against the killer typhus.

Mr. Talty has performed a great public service by rescuing this vital story from the obscurity into which it had fallen. He has also produced a compulsive, terrifying book. Compared to the horrors he documents, “The Silence of the Lambs” is bedtime reading for children. Highly recommended.

Martin Sieff is a veteran foreign correspondent who has received three nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. He is the author most recently of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East.”

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