Summer Reading List: True Tales That Will Inspire and Educate You


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OK, you’ve already read the latest hot science bestsellers—Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (both terrific, by the way)—and you’re wondering what to grab next. I’ve suggested below a number of remarkable science books that I’m fond of, and that you might find interesting as well. They’re organized by topics to help you find one to dive into during a lazy summer day by the pool, or on the plane as you make your way to your next conference.

Interested in the intersection of politics and healthcare? Some of these books may be tough to stomach because they illustrate the ugly, sausage-making side of some of our largest healthcare institutions. A great example: America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System by Steven Brill (2015) traces in great detail the horse-trading and deal making that ultimately led to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). If you like this one, follow it up with Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans by former CIGNA public relations spin-meister Wendell Potter (2011). He explains the many tricks the industry uses and may dispel your naïve notions that insurance companies put patients before profits. Finally, if you want to see just how disadvantaged the poor are when it comes to receiving healthcare, check out How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America by Otis Webb Brawley (Executive vice president of the American Cancer Society) and Paul Goldberg (2012).

How about the intersection of science, politics, and religion? Check out Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Edward Humes (2008). It’s the story of a courtroom battle (Kitzmiller vs. Dover) that’s reminiscent of the Scopes monkey trial because the subject once again is the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools. The book also nicely explains one of the key points of the trial: How the discredited concept of “creation science” morphed into “intelligent design.”

If you took a psychology class in college, you likely read about the experiments done at Yale University by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. These studies purported to show how ordinary people, when pushed by authoritarian figures, were capable of inflicting what they thought were painful and even potentially dangerous shocks on strangers. The studies were thought to help explain the evil acts of German citizens during the Nazi era. The real story is much more nuanced and complicated as described in Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments by Gina Perry (2013).

Already read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and still concerned about the dangers posed by the foods we eat? Try Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (2013), a terrific exposé that details how major food company executives employed the nation’s top sensory scientists to create foods that are wildly appealing to our taste buds, but are anything but healthy. If you like this one, follow it up with Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food by Steve Striffler (2007), which also delves into the exploitation of foreign workers by the food processors.

Infectious diseases are still a significant health problem in the 21st century, nearly a hundred years after the first drugs to treat these diseases were discovered. How did the first antibiotic compounds come into being? Let’s start with the discovery of sulfa drugs, as beautifully recounted in The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager (2007). If you like that one, move on to the story of dedicated scientists trying to develop a new antibiotic in World War II England while facing the very real possibility of a Nazi invasion. The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle by Eric Lax (2004) captures the tension involved in doing drug discovery work on a shoestring budget during wartime. The title refers to the fact that the researchers, who were ready to flee their labs on a moments notice, rubbed penicillin mold spores into their clothes so they could begin their work anew in a different country if the need arose. The discovery of streptomycin also makes a good read in Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug by Peter Pringle (2012). Much of the focus of this book is on the issue of fairness regarding who did (future Nobel prize winner Selman Waksman), and who did not (Albert Schatz, his graduate student), get sufficient credit for this groundbreaking work.

If after reading these you want to check out the benefits of not using antibiotics, take a look at Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin J. Blaser (2015). This book illustrates the positive benefits the bacteria that occupy our bodies bring to us.

At the end of the 19th century there were significant concerns by many world leaders that farmers would not be able to produce enough food to feed a growing population, and that mass starvation was on the horizon. The solution turned out to be the discovery of a way to take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into fertilizer (and just as importantly, explosives). This fascinating story was beautifully recounted in … Next Page »

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Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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2 responses to “Summer Reading List: True Tales That Will Inspire and Educate You”

  1. Dennis L. Thireault, MS says:

    Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History Hardcover – 2003 by RS Bray

    Most people do not realize that Northern Europe was so decimated by plagues that the population almost dropped below vitality.

    Also the decimation of the North American Population is subject to much debate (Many say that more people lived in the Americas than all of Europe.) Was it a plague, pestilence, or some other factor that wiped out >90% of the American population shortly after Columbus visited; we may never know but it wiped out estimates as high as 80+ million people.
    by R S Bray (Author)

  2. bespoked says:

    Many thanks for sharing this great reading list, as well as the more
    extensive one on your website. I’m just digging into All the Money in
    the World… (Laura Vanderkam); a great, and well-written read. Looking
    forward to checking out more of the titles on your list.