The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 18, 2008

Book review: Books examine impact of remarkable lives

This week’s books are about men who share little in common other than the impact their lives made.

One was a microbiologist with a Ph.D., one a journalist who didn’t earn a high-school diploma. One worked for many years in obscurity, while the other was known all over the world. One was given to displays of ill-temper and obscene and scatological language, the other was universally noted to be a gracious gentleman.

About the only things they had in common were an unswerving devotion to the truth and an overwhelming drive to do their best in their work and to see that those who worked with them did the same.

“Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases”

By Paul Offit, M.D.

“Vaccinated” is about the microbiologist in question. Maurice Hilleman was born in Montana in 1919 and raised on a farm. I expect you’ve never heard of him; I know I hadn’t. That’s rather a sad commentary on our society, given that he is chiefly responsible for the fact that most people in the developed world no longer have to suffer and die from pneumococcus, meningococcus, Hib influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B.

For many, that may not seem all that noteworthy, unless you know (as I now do) that measles used to kill 8 million children a year worldwide, and that rubella (or German measles) used to cause hundreds of thousands of cases of fetal death and birth defects every year, and chickenpox used to kill over 100 people in the United States alone aside from thousands of cases of serious illness.

Hilleman’s life and work provides the framework for a primer on vaccination — from its earliest development in Jenner’s work on smallpox through Pasteur’s rabies vaccine and right up until today. I’m no science junkie, but I found this to be a fascinating book, both on the scientific and the social side. The story of Pasteur’s rabies vaccine and the life and death of the first person to be successfully vaccinated against the always (one exception known to this date) fatal disease makes the book worth reading all by itself. The explanation of why there’s no vaccine for the common cold (and likely never will be) is enlightening, if disheartening.

The book is altogether an unexpectedly fascinating read.

“Peter Jennings: A Reporter’s Life”

Edited by Kate Darnton, Kayce Freed Jennings and Lynn Sherr

The book about Peter Jennings was a more expectedly interesting read. I have been a fan of Jennings since my childhood and found that this book of reminiscences of colleagues, friends and others whose lives intersected with his generally verified my opinions of him.

I was somewhat surprised to read that he had a very puckish sense of humor and that he was very, umm, shall we say, frugal. I shall quote here my favorite anecdote from journalist John Leo: “Peter loved ties. He particularly loved ties his friends were wearing. You’d go out to dinner with Peter and he’d admire your tie, and you’d say thank you and try to get back to the conversation. No, no, Peter would extravagantly admire your tie over and over until you took it off and gave it to him. And that’s how he acquired a great many of his ties. At his fiftieth birthday party, we dummied up a slide show of all the events of his life that were likely to be embarrassing, such as emceeing the Miss Canada Contest and so forth. The one that got the biggest laughs was — he turned fifty in the Dukakis year — of him stripping the tie off Dukakis during their interview. Everybody roared over that because every man in the audience had lost a couple of ties to Peter. He did send me six ties one year, to apparently make up for it. They were the six most hideous ties I’ve ever seen in my life.”

While the focus of the book is, indeed, on his life’s work, there is enough personal information to gratify those who are more interested in the man than his work. It’s a remarkable work, compiled largely by Lynn Sherr from the television special that aired shortly after his death in 2005, about a remarkable man.

Linda Cannon is the collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.