1. Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer & History by James S. Olson (The Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95). Perhaps because there’s now so much public awareness about breast cancer, we tend to forget that this disease also plagued our fore-mothers. In Olson’s engrossing history, you’ll learn about some prominent women who suffered and died from this disease, such as George Washington’s mother, Mary, and John Adams’ daughter, Abigail “Nabby” Adams. Covering women of ancient times through Jerri Nielsen, who performed her own breast biopsy and self-administered chemotherapy in the South Pole in 1999, this book is not for the squeamish. For example, Olson’s vivid description of Nabby Adams’ mastectomy without anesthesia will make even the strong of stomach squirm in her seat. Olson points out that even our prominent, educated foremothers tended to ignore a lump, hoping it would go away, until it was too late; think of how ordinary women like our ancestors, who didn’t have money or access to medical treatment, must have suffered. This book is definitely a thought-provoking read and reminds us that some diseases and their physical and emotional trauma transcend time.
2. The Cambridge Historical Dictionary of Disease edited by Kenneth F. Kiple (Cambridge University Press, $27). If you want to know more about what ailed your ancestors, this book will give you the details. For each disease—from AIDS to Yellow Fever—you’ll learn about the common names, history, symptoms and characteristics. This text’s especially helpful if you’re writing a family history and want to explain the symptoms of an ancestor’s disease.
3. Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care during the American Civil War by Frank R. Freemon (University of Illinois Press, $24.95). While a huge number of men died in battle during the Civil War, even more succumbed to illness and infection. That means chances are good that your Civil War ancestor was sick or hospitalized at some point during his duty. Freemon writes that Civil War soldiers saw more than their fair share of fever, diarrhea, maggots, blood, dysentery, blindness, pain, pus, amputation and putrefaction. He begins his book with an overview of medicine right before the war, then goes into an extensive study on Civil War medical care, including medicine at sea and the role of women nurses. The book, complete with a glossary, is vividly descriptive, heavily illustrated, well-documented and a must-read for anyone with Civil War ancestors.
4. Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail by Joan Druett (Routledge, $16.95). Druett chronicles the lives of early 19th-century doctors who practiced medicine at sea. Working in cramped conditions with limited medical supplies and poor nutrition, they battled diseases such as typhus, scurvy and tropical fevers. You’ll gain appreciation for what your ancestors must have endured under the doctor’s care for illness, sores and cuts, and even emergency surgeries. Druett’s book focuses on the whaling ships of the South Seas and includes a helpful 14-page glossary of sailing terms, diseases and common treatments.
5. Yellow Fever and the South by Margaret Humphreys (The Johns Hopkins University Press, $20.95). If your ancestors lived in the South during the second half of the 19th century, they may have died from a yellow fever epidemic. Spread by mosquitoes, the disease was at its peak from mid-summer to the first autumn frost. While yellow fever hit New Orleans the hardest, other cities, such as Mobile, Ala., Norfolk, Va., Charleston, SC, and Galveston, Texas, saw outbreaks in the mid-1800s. Humphreys covers not only the disease’s effects on its victims and their families, but also its impact on commerce, government and the scientific community.