Germ expert to discuss physical, mental impacts of contagious diseases

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 16, 2015

 Dr. Howard Markel

Dr. Howard Markel


BIRMINGHAM — As cold and flu season descends on metro Detroit, the Baldwin Public Library is celebrating — sort of — with a talk from a local expert on contagious diseases.

Dr. Howard Markel, a Detroit native and noted medical historian, physician and professor, will be at the library at 3 p.m. Nov. 21 to present a lecture called “When Germs Travel: Contagious Crises Across History.” 

Markel, who is currently a professor of pediatrics and history of medicine at the University of Michigan, has authored numerous books about the evolution of disease and its impact on humanity and society.

“We reached out to (Markel) to come do this presentation as part of our Great Michigan Read program,” said BPL Adult Services’ Maria Williams. She explained that the library takes part in the program promoted by the Michigan Humanities Council to engage readers in a type of statewide book club where participants across Michigan all read and discuss the same book.

“The book right now is ‘Station Eleven,’ by Emily St. John Mandel. It takes place 20 years in the future after a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population. It follows a Shakespearean acting troupe that travels around performing for these little pockets of survivors,” Williams explained. “It has a lot of really lofty themes, from what makes us human to the importance of arts and culture.”

To complement the story, Markel will tell visitors about his research on the effects of disease on communities from a historical perspective; particularly, how immigrants have over the years often been blamed for major epidemics and, in turn, have been treated rather inhumanely in an effort to stop a disease from spreading.

“He’ll talk about the flu and also the bubonic plague, tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS, cholera, typhus and trachoma, which I guess is still the leading cause of acquired blindness globally,” Williams said. “It’s a really interesting topic. You would think it would be really depressing, but (Markel) really puts a human face to what might often be seen as too esoteric to talk about.”

Williams added that Markel, at the end of his discussion, even points to a time in the field when he mistakenly assumed that a stomach virus spreading around Rwanda could potentially have been cholera. It’s an observation that even the most knowledgeable of people can fall victim to the fear of disease paranoia.

“We called doctors and hospitals around the area to invite them to come to this event because we really think they’ll find it interesting,” she said.

“I always look forward to giving lectures at public libraries,” said Markel in a prepared statement. “Everything I have accomplished as a scholar, writer and an epidemiologist is directly tied to the greatest of American institutions: the public library.”

There is no cost to attend the discussion, though pre-registration by calling (248) 647-1700 or by visiting is requested.

The Baldwin Public Library is located at 300 W. Merrill St. in downtown Birmingham.