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About The Book

‘This splendid and often moving work of history… Schama has a gift for combining novelistically colourful detail, serious analysis and wryly amusing asides’ Daily Telegraph

‘Superb’ Observer

‘Extraordinary… A meticulous retelling of a terrible yet scientifically innovative period… Makes an urgent case for building a better future on our toxic past’ Guardian

‘This is history of the best sort – humanly engaged but never sentimental’ Mail on Sunday

Cities and countries engulfed by panic and death, desperate for vaccines but fearful of what inoculation may bring. This is what the world has just gone through with Covid-19. But as Simon Schama shows in his epic history of vulnerable humanity caught between the terror of contagion and the ingenuity of science, it has happened before.

Characteristically, with Schama the message is delivered through gripping, page-turning stories set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: smallpox strikes London; cholera hits Paris; plague comes to India. Threading through the scenes of terror, suffering and hope – in hospitals and prisons, palaces and slums – are an unforgettable cast of characters: a philosopher-playwright burning up with smallpox in a country chateau; a vaccinating doctor paying house calls in Halifax; a woman doctor in south India driving her inoculator-carriage through the stricken streets as dead monkeys drop from the trees. But we are also in the labs when great, life-saving breakthroughs happen, in Paris, Hong Kong and Mumbai.

At the heart of it all, an unsung hero: Waldemar Haffkine. A gun-toting Jewish student in Odesa turned microbiologist at the Pasteur Institute, hailed in England as ‘the saviour of mankind’ for vaccinating millions against cholera and bubonic plague in British India while being cold-shouldered by the medical establishment of the Raj. Creator of the world’s first mass production line of vaccines in Mumbai, he is tragically brought down in an act of shocking injustice.

Foreign Bodies crosses borders between east and west, Asia and Europe, the worlds of rich and poor, politics and science. Its thrilling story carries with it the credo of its author on the interconnectedness of humanity and nature; of the powerful and the people. Ultimately, Schama says, as we face the challenges of our times together, ‘there are no foreigners, only familiars’.

About The Author

Sir Simon Schama's award-winning books, which have been translated into twenty-three languages, include The Embarrassment of Riches, Citizens, Landscape and Memory, Rembrandt's Eyes, A History of Britain, The Power of Art, Rough Crossings, The American Future, The Face of Britain and The Story of the Jews. His art columns for the New Yorker won the National Magazine Award for criticism and his journalism has appeared regularly in the Guardian and the Financial Times, where he is Contributing Editor. He has written and presented more than fifty films for the BBC on subjects as diverse as Tolstoy and American politics, and he co-presented the landmark series on the history of world art, Civilisations. Most recently, his History of Now series aired on BBC2 in November–December 2022. Schama lives in New York and is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations is his twentieth book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (February 29, 2024)
  • Length: 480 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781471169922

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Raves and Reviews


– Guardian

'A splendid and often moving work of history . . . Schama has a gift for combining novelistically colourful detail, serious analysis, and wryly amusing asides’

– The Telegraph

‘The histories Schama weaves together in this very personal and rather wonderful book should encourage us to know what is possible, in astonishingly short periods of time, if compounding human talent is channelled to good and universal ends’

– Literary Review

‘This is history of the best sort – humanly engaged but never sentimental’

– Mail on Sunday

'With the aplomb of a young A. J. P. Taylor, Schama neatly balances the obligation to disparage empire with the historian’s love of valorous action. He pricks the pretensions of the Raj, whose grandees thought they had materially bettered the lives of Indians; but he handsomely acknowledges the human efforts expended, in crowded slums and roadside clinics, pursuing that fond vision'

– Financial Times

'Schama’s now-familiar approach, with its over-the-shoulder perspective and deluge of local detail, gives a pleasing verisimilitude to his stories of jostling individuals, ideas and institutions. It is Haffkine’s political fall that provides the book’s strongest passages. The colonial administration – a bureaucratic machine for misery, terrified of resistance – was willing to mobilise against what it saw as a foreign threat, even with millions of lives, and its own legitimacy, in the balance. We see the reactionary drive towards both self- and collective harm repeat on the scale of the nation, institution and individual, in Haffkine’s world as well as our own. History suggests there are other paths, imperfect and difficult though they might be, if we could only recognise them'

– New Statesman

Do yourself a favour, buy this book . . . it’s vast and terrifying and somehow beautiful, and it reads like a Ted Talk all-timer, but instead of a blank screen you’re left with this beautiful bow to untie and book to read’

– Irish Times

‘Delves into the history of pandemics and their cures, through the gripping personal narratives of some fascinating individuals

– Radio Times

'A fascinating story of vaccines’ spread'

– The Economist

’Schama’s account makes the case for learning from history and opening our minds to ideas that come from strange places. Whether we like it or not, we’re all connected, now more than ever'

– The Times

'His account of the individuals who have helped curb the devastating effects of widespread infections – often defying medical hierarchies and courting controversy in the process – ultimately presents an inspiring and hopeful read'

– Perspective

'Schama’s skill as a narrator makes for an effortless ride between the minutiae of particular diseases, their spread throughout communities, and the story of the forces of biology in shaping global history

– Times Literary Supplement

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