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Historian Simon Schama's new book traces the roots of today's distrust of vaccines


Simon Schama opens his latest book, "Foreign Bodies," with this reminder - in the end, all history is natural history. He tells how humans have contended with mass contagion and death through centuries of plague, smallpox, cholera, flu, leading to COVID, the blame directed at whole peoples considered outsiders and the distrust of so many of the science of inoculation.

Simon Schama, the esteemed historian of art, Jewish history, the French Revolution and more, joins us now from New York. Simon, thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON SCHAMA: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Through centuries, humans have blamed people they consider the other for various plagues.

SCHAMA: Yes. Hence the - you know, the title "Foreign Bodies," really. You know, we're two kinds of human, as you well know, Scott. On the one hand, we're capable of incomparable ingenuity of the kind that can produce vaccines in record time, but we're still a kind of, you know, old-fashioned basket of suspicions and paranoias and so on. And it's understandable, in a way, because as the first inoculators who were dealing with smallpox in the early 1700s discovered, it's a very counterintuitive thing to stick what you know is a bit of poison inside your own perfectly healthy body. And in the 1700s, nobody had any idea there was such a thing as an immune system. They were astonished that people would want to do that as an act of faith, that you would deliberately bring on a mild attack of smallpox to protect you from dying of it. So there's room, in a way, for thinking that anybody who would promote this was up to no good. Suspicion of proven, hard-earned scientific knowledge is somehow always an obstacle to acceptance.

SIMON: Much of your book centers on the stories of Elie Metchnikoff, the Ukrainian-born scientist who pioneered the study of immunology, and his star pupil, Waldemar Haffkine.

SCHAMA: Yes, that's right. When Waldemar Haffkine goes to the new university in 1881, the czar's just been assassinated - Czar Alexander II. And he belongs to all sorts of student political organizations. And a pogrom is about to be unleashed on the Jewish community in Odesa. And Haffkine actually is one of a group of people who arm the community - the first time ever - with guns. He's caught with a gun in his hand three times. So on the one hand, he has this science life with Metchnikoff, who wins the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his work on immunology. And on the other hand, he's full of a kind of - a sort of social excitement, I would say - political excitement. And Metchnikoff gets him out of prison - 'cause he has good connections in St. Petersburg - on condition that Haffkine will only devote himself to science. And that's more or less what happens.

SIMON: And that's how they came to the Pasteur Institute in Paris?

SCHAMA: Yeah, he ends up - Metchnikoff ends up being at the Pasteur Institute during its very first year in 1888 - '89. He brings Haffkine with him, both to work with him and also to keep him out of trouble, I think. But Haffkine doesn't - he has a job as a lowly assistant librarian, and he sets about trying to produce something that was thought to be impossible - a vaccine against cholera. He's staying up late at night. And eventually, after two years of a very, very uphill battle, he does produce a successful cholera vaccine. And this is really extraordinary. He not only publishes the result but vaccinates himself. He's the first person. He tests it on himself and rounds up, you suppose, his kindly and loyal friends, both inside the lab and out, to test it on themselves. And they get a mild case of cholera. It works. It works. It's an extraordinary moment.

SIMON: Yeah. And that was one of his principles, right? He always tested out the vaccine on himself.

SCHAMA: Yes, he did. He absolutely always did that. He goes to India. He realizes as cholera was ebbing in Europe, other very bad things were coming down the pike - in particular, the return of the Black Death, the return of the bubonic plague. He always made a point of, actually, these almost theatrical demonstrations of being the first and also only ever vaccinating people who were volunteers. So he has a career amidst the poor of Asia, which starts with his own personal act of faith doing this and then seeking out like-minded people like the young Aga Khan, for example, in Bombay, who was prepared also to be, in an exemplary way, vaccinated to persuade his own community to follow him.

SIMON: He saved millions of lives in Bombay, didn't he?

SCHAMA: Yeah, measurably, measurably. I mean, it's - bubonic plague is a terrifying thing. And the British, with their sense of imperial military certainty, basically were applying what they knew about cholera to a completely different disease. So they felt what you had to do was find who had caught the bubonic plague, split up families, split up the population and then just absolutely bomb the street, the house, the belongings with carbolic acid, with disinfectant solution. But, of course, the rats just laughed and moved on to the next place. And the fleas just went with them. And Haffkine knew this was, you know, absurd in terms of the brand-new science of microbiology. And he personally created the first max production facility for producing vaccines in the world in 1899.

SIMON: Simon, does the world keep repeating some of the same mistakes when it comes to epidemics?

SCHAMA: You know, sort of - I mean, we now, of course, know all about the immune system. We know that it is a lifesaver to give yourself an infinitesimally mild dose of an infection, a pathogen which, if you don't do that, is likely to kill you. And yet some of those old suspicions and fears and worries and the sense that it's not really necessary just go on and on and on. I mean, the surgeon general of Florida just the other day warned people not to take the vaccine against the new variants, which are circulating very fast - your colleagues may indeed have come down with them - and actually said people should trust their common sense, not listen to experts. What that means is our kind of gut instinct wins over hard-earned scientific knowledge. This is a kind of catastrophic thing, I think, to say. It's really, literally, a matter of life and death.

SIMON: I will explain, by the way, we have several colleagues in our show who tested positive for COVID this week.

SCHAMA: How are they doing?

SIMON: I think they're doing well. I've been able to email back and forth with them.

SCHAMA: I think one problem is that the vaccines against COVID were sold as a prophylactic that will prevent you from getting it. And that experience was, at best, very mixed. But there's no doubt whatsoever that our modern vaccines against COVID-19 have had an extraordinary benevolent effect on the severity of the disease, and that's what really counts. And that's why you and your family and me and mine should get the new vaccine. It's not a booster. It's a new vaccine.

SIMON: Let me ask this, finally. You say that there's no such thing as foreigners, only familiars. Is that hard to get hold of in these times?

SCHAMA: Oh, boy. Isn't it? Isn't it? Just think of politics now, which, you know, makes political fame and fortune out of demonizing foreigners. We're trained as historians to frown on anything that's said to be unprecedented. And old historians particularly, I suppose, are prone to saying, we're in trouble now. But we are in trouble. We have global existential crises - environmental, biological, the enormous movements of populations. These are all, all interconnected. And, you know, viruses laugh at border walls and the sort of shortsighted instincts that we have, really, to enclose ourselves off from those foreign bodies who may be wishing us ill. A virus doesn't wish us good or ill. It simply goes about the business of being a virus. So it's another case, really, of seeing our connectedness as the condition for the survival and flourishing of planet Earth. And those of us who are lucky enough to have grandchildren look at them and thinking, we have to really take that attitude.

SIMON: Simon Schama - his book, "Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines And The Health Of Nations." Thank you so much for being with us.

SCHAMA: It's a pleasure, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ RYOW'S "PHANTOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Corrected: September 16, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline misspelled Simon Schama's last name as Schema.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.